This afternoon, our faculty was in the midst of selecting a new dean when word came from the Dean’s office that Tom Dienes, Lyle T. Alverson Professor Emeritus of Law, had passed away. It was very difficult for some of us to continue after learning the news. While we learned of Tom’s serious condition a short while ago, there was still not enough time to process the shock of losing such a towering figure in our community and, for me, such a good friend. He was 74 when he lost his battle with cancer. He left in his passing a legacy that few could equal in terms of the scholarship and lives shaped by his work.
When I first came to the George Washington faculty from Tulane Law School, Tom was the very first to greet me. We shared a connection to both Chicago and Northwestern University School of Law. We also shared connections to the media. Tom served as general counsel to U.S. News & World Report and later worked as a consultant to the magazine. That relationship with the magazine continued until 2002.
Charles Thomas Dienes was a beloved fixture at our school. He received his B.S. from Loyola University in Chicago and both his J.D. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. He taught on the faculties of University of Houston, American University, and George Washington. He had visiting positions at Cornell University and the University of Indiana law schools. He also taught during the summers in Guadalajara, Dublin, and Oxford. In his remarkable career, he wrote or co-wrote nine books, monographs, and a long list of law review articles in the areas of constitutional law and communications law. That includes Constitutional Law: Principles and Policy, in its ninth edition, and Newsgathering and the Law in its third edition.
His scholarship is widely cited throughout the areas of constitutional and media law. However, Tom was more than a great scholar to me. He was a friend. Despite his success and busy schedule, Tom always had time for his colleagues, particularly his junior colleagues. He was one of the most decent and kind men I have ever met. There was no pretense to Tom. He was honest and direct and unfailingly polite. Indeed, I never once heard Tom raise his voice or say a single unkind thing. Not once. He found joy in little things and was absolutely committed to teaching. He loved the students and loved the classroom. He would often tell me how incredibly fortunate we were to be able to teach students at George Washington. Many of those students learned later how incredibly fortunate they were to be taught by a man like Tom Dienes.
For me, I will most remember the sense of tranquility in Tom. He had wonderfully happy eyes and an easy smile that put everyone at ease. While he was dedicated to the law, it was always clear that his greatest love was his wife Peggy. When he was not talking about Peggy, he was relating the latest accomplishment of his daughter Kimberly, who also earned a Ph.D. Tom would always marvel at the brilliant and beautiful daughter that he and Peggy had raised. Peggy and Kimberly remained the two poles that directed Tom’s life — two strong women who he adored every single day of his life.
For some of us, the end came too quickly to handle Tom’s illness and loss. We were asked not to call Tom who was struggling after a recent surgery. The cancer came as a complete surprise. It was too late and Tom was spending his final days with Peggy and Kimberly. I had hoped that he would rally so that some of us could visit and just say thank you. Tonight, as I write this memorial, that is my greatest regret. I would have simply said, “Thanks Tom. Thanks for everything.” He would have understood. There were too many things to list and most would not be easy to describe. A strong presence, a quiet word of advice, a passing smile when you felt down. But I would have loved just one chance more to say “thanks.” I suppose it is always that way. We never seem to have the chance to truly thank those who make our lives richer merely by being a part of it.
Ironically, Tom probably would have probably preferred it this way. He was not the type who wanted to be a burden or to be maudlin or to sit for compliments. He was the type who took bad news and moved on as best he could. I expect that Tom would say that his final days were spent like his best days — with the woman of his dreams.
While many know Tom as an intellectual, he would probably brush away such a label in favor of the title he cherished to the day of his passing: teacher. Tom was a true teacher. I lived to educate others; to convey not only his knowledge but his deep love for the law. He measured his success not in the library of publications that he left but in the literally thousands of students that he touched in his lifetime. They are his truest legacy. His books merely memorialized his legal theories. It is his students who continue his true work and passion. For Tom, law was a living and a joyous thing. That inspiring and remarkable journey came to an end today for him but it continues along thousands of different trajectories for all those who he touched and taught. It was surely a life too short but it was a life well lived.
My favorite picture of Tom is the one below. He is holding the thing that most defined him and gave his life such meaning: Peggy. She remained the core of his being. That smile on his face was the smile that you would see every time you saw Tom in the hall or his office. He was someone who found his place in the world and then made that world better.
So thanks Tom. Thanks for everything.