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40 Consecutive Years of Giving

January 16, 2017

Returning the favor

By Ava DiFabritiis, C’13

In the afternoons and evenings after class, many first-year students of Penn Law’s Class of 1959 could be found in Biddle Law Library, studiously completing the day’s reading assignments. Murray Eckell L’59 was not among them. Instead, he shuttled between City Hall and the offices of Shapiro, Rosenfeld, Stalberg & Cook, filing the firm’s papers and retrieving the latest advance sheets. The son of a retail-store manager and a housewife who joined the workforce to help finance her son’s education, Eckell needed the job to meet the cost of attending Penn Law. The first-generation college student had worked his way through Dickinson College, too.

But Eckell soon found that his work at the firm impinged on his studies at Penn Law. “I was never a fast reader,” he recalls, “so sometimes I had trouble keeping up with all of the assignments. I was concerned about my grades and how I was doing.” Seeking another solution, he asked around the Law School about financial aid opportunities. He was directed to an office in Silverman Hall—that of “Mr. Law School,” Vice Dean Ted Husted.

In his meeting with the vice dean, Eckell expressed his wish to quit his part-time job in order to dedicate more time to his studies. Vice Dean Husted listened patiently, and then reached down into a drawer on the lower right-hand corner of his desk. As Eckell recalls: “He pulls out a checkbook, and he writes out a check and hands it to me. It was a check for five-hundred dollars, payable to Murray Eckell. All I had asked for was two-fifty.” Stunned by this act of generosity, Eckell asked, “Don’t I have to sign a contract?” Vice Dean Husted waved him off: “When you’re an alumnus, you’ll pay it back. Don’t worry about it.”

With the Law School’s financial assistance, Eckell was able to give up his balancing act and devote himself fully to his legal education. After graduation, he completed the then-mandatory six-month preceptorship under an established attorney in his hometown of Chester, PA, and remained at that firm for a few more years. It wasn’t exactly glamorous, as Eckell remembers: “I didn’t even have my own desk; I had a table in the corner of my preceptor’s office.”

Although he struggled at first, Eckell’s career soon took off. “Things were a little bit tight in the early years. But they got better quick,” he says. He secured a position as the Democratic Party’s solicitor for the Chester Housing Authority, which granted him the means to strike out on his own. He and a close friend established the firm of Eckell Sparks, which remains a well-respected practice in Delaware County today. Eckell is now semi-retired, returning to the firm three days a week to practice real estate mediation and arbitration.

Along the way, Eckell has accumulated a variety of professional achievements: a yearlong appointment on the bench of the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County; decades of leadership in local and national bar associations, including a term on the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania Bar Association; and years of service on the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But he never forgot the favor paid to him by Vice Dean Husted and Penn Law. “I already had an obligation to support the Law School; that created in me another obligation,” Eckell says. “It was important to me to make sure that every year I sent in some money to the Law School.”

For each and every one of the past 40 years, Eckell has done just that. Yet, he does not find his unwaveringly loyal tradition of giving to be all that remarkable. He simply views it as an expression of gratitude for the generosity of Vice Dean Husted and the opportunities afforded to him by a Penn Law education. “It was important to me because in my family, nobody went to college. I was appreciative—I thought I got a great education,” Eckell says. “Why not pay back? Why not help the school out that helped me?”