Greatness is an elusive concept. And yet most of us know it when we are in its presence. It is that rare.
On Sunday, April 22, a great man died in Lawrence. There can be no other fair characterization of Paul Wilson but great. Certain cultures have a practice of declaring certain rare individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to their nation "national treasures." Paul Wilson would have been so labeled. He was unique. He was a country lawyer with the mind and sensibilities of a world citizen. He was larger than life. Yet for all of his greatness, Paul was a modest, unassuming man. He loved the law and loved Kansas.
Paul Wilson started out life in a fairly ordinary way, served his country during World War II as so many of his generation did. He attended KU and then he went to law school at Washburn. He married Harriet and he had children. He chose to pursue his profession, at first, as a small town Kansas lawyer and as a county attorney. His life up to this point was not extraordinary.
All that changed when he moved to the Kansas Attorney General's Office and became an assistant attorney general. It was in that position that Paul Wilson came face to face with destiny. For he was there when the case of Brown v. Board of Education arrived in that office and it was his fate to be chosen to go to the Supreme Court of the United States to argue the case for Kansas. A humble Kansas lawyer thus became part of history.
Toward the end of his life Paul committed his reminiscences of this epic case to writing in a book to which he gave a wonderful and so "Wilsonesque" title: "A Time to Lose." As a result of that book Paul was asked to speak at the Supreme Court of the United States again, not as a lawyer but as an important player on the stage of history.
For most of us to be one of the lawyers in the most important Supreme Court case decided in the century would have been a career high point. Paul eventually left government service and joined the KU law school faculty where he became one of the most beloved and well-respected professors. He was honored while teaching by being named the first John H. & John M. Kane Distinguished Professor of Law.
He was honored uniquely just a few years ago when his friend and classmate, John Rounds, created the Paul Wilson Distinguished Professorship in Law, the first time in the history of the KU Law School that a faculty member was so honored. But these honors were simply recognition of the role Paul played in the lives of his students and colleagues and KU. Generations of students learned how to be lawyers and good men and women from Paul.
But these facts do not convey an adequate sense of the man or his greatness. For this, one had to know him. One had to be there and listen when he spoke of the history of lawyers in Kansas, of the history of legal education in Kansas, of the joys of being a lawyer and a Kansan. Paul was unique. He was a lawyer who loved books and loved history. His eyes sparkled when he spoke of the subjects he loved. Paul was in his milieu surrounded by books.
I remember one time in Baltimore when Paul and Harriet and Karen and I went to visit some used book shops before going off to an alumni event. Paul was a natural story-teller. Until he was no longer able, Paul would lead all of the KU law graduates up the Hill on the last day of class each year to "Old" Green Hall where he'd tell the story of all that went on in that building. I would watch the students' faces as they listened to him. One could see their pride and their sense of place grow as he spoke. He shared with them his love of the law and of KU.
But Paul's story-telling was not limited to his lectures. Paul wrote beautifully. His wit, his zest for life, his deep knowledge of so many things came through in his writing. Last year his last book, a collection of short pieces, Musings of a Smiling Bull, was published by KU. We had a book signing to celebrate its publication not too long ago. Students, alumni, and colleagues all lined up to get Paul to sign their copies. That's how much he was loved.
Each of us, in life, if we're very lucky, gets to meet a few special people. Paul was one of these special people. He enriched the lives of every person who knew him. Each of us will miss him. He was a truly a treasure. I am grateful that I had a chance to know him. His like will not be seen again.
Mike Hoeflich is a professor in the Kansas University School of Law.