Monday, July 16, 2018

On Losing A Rising Star Business Law Colleague - A Tribute to Jonathan G. Rohr

Had I not been taking pictures on the beach during a morning walk with dear college friends on the New England shoreline, I would not have seen the incoming call on my silenced cell phone--a call from a business law colleague from UT Law that I figured I ought to answer.  But the call was not, as I expected, a request for help with a research or teaching question.  Instead, this colleague was calling to inform me of an email message from our Dean letting us know that our junior business law colleague, Jonathan Rohr, had died the day before.  (I am linking here to a YouTube video featuring Jonathan, which will tell you much more about the man that he was than any CV or website.)

Jonathan came into my life almost two years ago when he interviewed with UT Law for a permanent, tenure track position after VAP-ing at his law alma mater, Cardozo.  From the start, Jonathan impressed me and others on the Appointments Committee with his intellect, his enthusiasm for the faculty task, and his intensity.  He survived the appointments tournament and came to work with us last summer.  Before his untimely death, he already had been invited to comment on a paper at last year's AALS annual meeting and had symposium and virtual symposium invitations--as a first-year tenure-track colleague.  His scholarship was thoughtful and lucidly written.  He worked hard to make every piece better and better and better through editing.  He was a popular and revered teacher.  He was contributing to our College of Law community in significant ways.   I could not have been prouder to have him as a colleague and tried to introduce him to everyone imaginable to get his permanent teaching career off to the right start. 

I think it's fair to say that no one was more excited for Jonathan's arrival at UT Law than I.  He was what my dear husband calls a "Mini-Me"--someone at the early stages of a career trajectory with a similar professional background who aspires to similar career goals and seeks to be mentored by me along the way.  Most of the Mini-Mes that I have worked with were and are law practice colleagues and students.  Jonathan was my first faculty Mini-Me.  I had plans for our ongoing work together.  I think he had plans of that kind, too.  We had started working in a number of areas informally.  We drank beer and discussed strategies for research, teaching, tenure, promotion, etc.  The one academic year that we had together was idyllic in so many ways--too good to be true, for me, as I often observed.  Our last conversation about his current work and my current work was last week.  He was writing a guest post for this blog.  He promised to send me his most recent essay in draft form for review.  On July 11, he sent the essay to me and a few others.  Two days later, he was no longer with us.  Unbelievable.

And so, on Saturday, after my colleague delivered the news during that beach walk, I stopped and cried.  I asked "why?" so many times and shook my head in disbelief as I moaned and the tears fell.  What else could I do?  The once colorful, happy beach scene turned gray.  Over 20 years ago, I remember my husband relating that the colors were taken from him when his Dad, a vibrant graphic artist, died too young (but at a much older age than Jonathan).  I understood in that moment on the beach exactly what my husband meant.  Yet, I knew I had to move on.  My friends were way down the beach by that time.  They needed to know what had transpired.  I needed their support and love; and I knew I needed them to to try help me make sense out of the world around me.  Everything was and remains a bit off-kilter.  I know many of you can identify with that feeling.

As I walked down the beach, head bowed low, the first thing that stood out for me on the bland, gray sand was this rock.


It appeared blue in the sunshine--a striking blue in the dull sandy grayness--although in other lights it takes on more charcoal color, as it does in this photo.  Like Jonathan, it stood out as special, a near-perfect specimen among many others.  In finishing the walk, I picked up several other objects that stood out from others on the beach.  Somehow, that effort comforted me.  I cannot really say why . . . .

Over the past few years, those of us who research and teach business law have mourned the loss of a number of amazing colleagues.  These passings have hit all of us hard, professionally and personally.  But the loss of Jonathan Rohr from our midst feels qualitatively different to me, as a close colleague and mentor.  It will take time for me and many others who knew him to even begin to process this tragic loss.  Perhaps this post will begin a process of healing for me.  But I do not know that I ever will make sense out of this.  We have lost a man that many had loved and respected.  In his way-too-short life, he touched colleagues and students, as well as family and friends.  His enthusiasm and love for life was so palpable and contagious; I still feel that energy now.  I hope that sense of connection lingers.  It also is a comfort.  

I dedicate this post to Jonathan, with offers of sympathy and love to his wonderful wife, Jing, and the rest of their family.  I am so glad that he became part of my life and so mournfully sad that he has left us.

Joan Heminway, Law School, Research/Scholarhip, Teaching | Permalink


That sucks, What a loss.

As you know, Nebraska also made an offer to Jonathan the year you hired him at Tennessee. I was on our Appointments Committee and I got to know Jonathan fairly well. He was a wonderful young man and an extremely promising scholar. We wanted him very badly and were extremely disappointed when he chose Tennessee.

The world has lost a very nice person. My thoughts and prayers to his family.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Jul 16, 2018 7:40:52 AM

Joan - I am so incredibly sad for you, his family, and the UT community in hearing this news. I met Jonathan at the NBLSC dinner with you, and I came away thinking he was a great guy and a scholar to keep my eye on. Our thoughts are with all of you during this time.

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | Jul 16, 2018 7:56:17 AM

This is awful news and so sad, Joan. Beautiful, moving tribute. I only met Jonathan once, but he was as engaging and warm and thoughtful as you describe. Over on the right side of this blog, I see that he left one of our most recent comments, and he seemed to be truly enjoying and excelling in the life of a professor. We will be thinking of Jonathan's family, you, and the entire UTK faculty during this time.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jul 16, 2018 8:04:39 AM

What a loss to the legal community, and of course, his family. Thank you for this beautiful tribute and for sharing your personal thoughts on his potential and his impact.

Posted by: Marcia Narine Weldon | Jul 16, 2018 10:13:15 AM

I am devastated to hear this news, Joan. He struck me as a wonderful person, an incredibly promising scholar, and I wish I'd known him better. A tremendous loss both to your school and to the field.

Posted by: Ann | Jul 16, 2018 10:32:03 AM

He was an amazing professor and mentor; truly, a Heminway "Mini-Me". I am so glad you put into words what so many of us found difficult to express. He will be greatly missed.

Posted by: Lauren Hughes | Jul 16, 2018 1:18:19 PM

Why? 35 years old? I'm speechless. I enjoyed talking to him last year at the BLPB conference and I cannot even process how this will affect his family. What a terrible loss of a terrific person.

Posted by: Doug | Jul 17, 2018 7:39:09 AM

So sorry for your and UT's loss.

Posted by: Tom N. | Jul 17, 2018 9:41:17 AM

Sending my sincere condolences and sympathy... I am so sorry for your loss and for Jonathan's family, UT Law, and our greater community. Thank you, Joan, for this beautiful tribute. We are here for you.

Posted by: Elizabeth | Jul 17, 2018 8:21:08 PM

Thanks to all who have offered stories and kind words about Jonathan--as well as support for his family and friends--including me and his other UT Law colleagues. This is such a shock still. But I do appreciate you all.

Posted by: joanheminway | Jul 17, 2018 9:57:56 PM

Professor Rohr was my Corporations professor at Cardozo. It may be cliche' to say, but he was without a doubt one of the nicest, most genuine people I have ever come across. People as wise, magnanimous, gentle and all-around pleasant do not come that often. He had such a welcoming and kind nature that I felt like I could talk to him about anything, legally-related or non. He was also absolutely brilliant. I mean you have to have some degree of intelligence to be valedictorian of your class and work at one of the premier law firms in the world, but he was indisputably, undeniably wise beyond his years and not just as it pertained to law. He was without a doubt one of my favorite professors I've ever had and I will miss him dearly. I'll miss coming into his office and seeing him in his chair with his back towards the door, only to swing around to welcome me with a smile that would brighten anyone's day.

R.I.P. Professor Rohr. I'll never forget you.

Posted by: Mike | Jul 18, 2018 7:31:19 PM

I want to comment as someone who knew him well from his "other life", that of an opera singer. The focus, clarity and passion he obviously brought to his legal work was equaled by that which he brought to his singing and acting. I directed him twice in operas in NYC, and am so very grateful to have known him. He was a fantastic singer and a wonderful, intelligent, sensitive human being. We've lost a special mind, heart, and soul.

Posted by: Ben Spierman | Jul 19, 2018 8:15:35 PM

Mike and Ben, thanks for offering these additional thoughts on Jonathan's life and work. I will hold them in my heart today and always.

Posted by: joanheminway | Jul 20, 2018 6:34:35 AM

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