|Students are drawn to Gary Clinton, with whom they have developed rapport and unshakeable trust. Thirty-four years after joining Penn Law School, Clinton, dean of students, remains the indispensable man.|
It was his third year of law school and Eric Wilensky L'03 was brooding. A secret nagged at him. Days before his tax exam, he took to an AOL chat line to do a little social networking. He thought no one he knew was listening or watching. Big mistake. Someone in his evidence class recognized his picture and Wilensky had been outed.
A wave of emotions washed over him. The years of hosting girls at high school parties in his basement, the dreams of a typical nuclear family, the approval of polite society all a conceit.
Now he had to own up to his sexual orientation and resolve the conflicts that roiled within. Plus tell his parents.
So Wilensky did what many students in crisis have done before him and many continue to do today: he turned to Gary Clinton for help.
Although he did not know him well, he trusted that Clinton would give him good advice. They went to the food court for Chinese food, and Eric shared his secret. After meeting with Clinton, Wilensky shared the news with his parents. It went well. A short while later, Clinton called Wilensky to check how he was feeling. Wilensky's grateful father picked up the phone to thank Clinton for supporting his son.
"In the next year or so, I spoke with Gary a lot," says Wilensky, an associate at Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell LLP in Wilmington, Del. "It felt natural to talk about things with Gary that the remnants of those internal walls kept me from talking to other people about. Gary functioned as a gay father."
Clinton serves many roles at Penn Law School. A product of divinity school, he combines an inclination to pastor with a healthy respect for order and rules. He projects an aura of competence. He's an expert at emotional triage, handling a succession of crises that run from the death of students and parents; to criminal acts on campus; to meltdowns from the pressures of law school and family life.
He's also the town crier, announcing events with flourish, such as when he dashes off impish e-mails about the need to secure tickets for parties and barbeques, and the director of fun, who helps students loosen up by carving pumpkins, playing dodgeball or flinging paint in observance of an Indian festival. Most important, he ministers to students, a role he's been reprising day after day since becoming dean of students, in deed if not in title, in 1992. All told, Clinton's been here for 34 years, stacking books in the library, serving as an administrator in the Registrar's Office, and, like an Olympic torchbearer, carrying the Penn Law flame.
"The one person who would leave a big hole if he left the Law School is Gary Clinton," says professor Stephen B. Burbank, who has served alongside him for more than three decades.
"More than any other single person he is responsible for the continuation of a culture."
Burbank attributes Clinton's exalted status to his "fundamental decency," "tremendous capacity for empathy," and "endless patience," qualities that make him an "avuncular" figure who connects with students from all backgrounds - a literal throw- back to the days when university and college administrators typically invested the time and energy to relate to students.
Christopher Schmitt L'11, president of the Council of Student Representatives (CSR), seconds that characterization. He says Clinton is so effective in responding to student issues that he almost makes CSR obsolete. "I've gone to him with personal problems that have nothing to do with school, or with more serious structural problems. He's a great listener. He has great advice. He works hard and he knows how to fix things. I think he really is the student's champion."
And the feeling is reciprocal. Rick D'Avino L'80, former president of his class, recalls Clinton's institutional ascent, and his ascent to becoming an institution. "If the dean and his standing faculty are the heart of Penn Law, Gary Clinton is certainly its soul," says D'Avino, who has graduated to president of the Law Alumni Society. "The fruits of Gary's efforts, it seems to me, elevate Penn Law above its peers. He has, in many respects, created over the last thirty plus years the 'personality' of Penn Law."
Not surprising given Clinton's penchant for big personalities.
Witness his affection for Teddy Roosevelt. Clinton owns one of the most significant collections of TR memorabilia in the country.
As D'Avino relates, every year at the Equal Justice Foundation auction, arguably the best attended student event on the calendar, students donate lots of money in hopes of winning a visit to Clinton's home to catch a glimpse of these historical artifacts and to share a TR-inspired steak and potatoes dinner with him.
"I hear regularly from alumni, both from around the USA and abroad, "says D' Avino, "that Gary and the environment that he has fostered with his warmth, transparency, and student advocacy are among their best memories of Penn Law."
It is hard to find administrators, whether at schools or in any workplace, that inspire such devotion. And that is why several big-name law schools have made a run at Clinton, hoping to import the environment he has created here. But, each time, Clinton decided to stay home.
And that has been a big relief to deans, alumni and especially incoming students who, like Wilensky, have found a friend and adviser in Gary Clinton.
"Though indescribable in words, there is just a presence about Gary that is calming, reassuring and friendly all at once.
It's that presence that, looking back, made coming out to Gary the logical step. And it's that presence that I believe makes Gary such an asset to, and really rubs off on the spirit of Penn Law," says Wilensky, who invited Clinton to his wedding in 2008.