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Remembering BC Law Professor Catharine Wells

Boston College Law School Professor Catharine Wells, a pragmatism legal scholar who spearheaded efforts to diversify the BC Law community, died on March 7.

“As a law professor, she sort of transcended the law,” said Sam Jockel, a former student of Wells and BC Law ’14. “When I looked back at some of her writings, some of what she was talking about wasn’t just about law. It was sort of much higher than that. I always thought her more as a philosopher—one that inspired others and one that did make change.”

Ingrid Hillinger, a BC law professor, said she and Wells instantly clicked after meeting.

“She was basically three months older than I am, and because we’ve had very similar life experiences in terms of being a woman and teaching and so on,” she said. “We just automatically bonded.”

Hillinger said she often stayed at Wells’ home for the night—as Wells lived much closer to BC—and they would talk late into the night. 

“I get up very early in the mornings when I teach,” she said. “So whenever I went to Catharine’s house because it was going to be bad weather, I always said, ‘We can only talk for “x” amount of time.’ And we would end up talking till 11 o’clock at night. And I remember those very, very fondly.”

Two of Wells’ defining attributes were her incredible kindness and diplomacy skills, Hillinger said.

“I would often go to her to get advice on an issue that I wanted resolved and I wanted to know a diplomatic way to do it,” Hillinger said. “She reigned me in. She calmed me down. She had the right amount of ‘you’re right, you’re right, you’re right’ and ‘no, no, no, can’t do that.’”

James R. Repetti, BC Law’s inaugural William J. Kenealy, S.J., professor, echoed this sentiment, as Wells’ kindness always stuck with him, he said.

“Catharine showed us that just because you’re really intelligent doesn’t mean that you can’t be kind and generous,” he said. 

According to Repetti, Wells exemplified the University’s Jesuit values through this attitude. 

“[Her character] is consistent with the underlying Jesuit mission of seeing God in all people and seeing the goodness in all people,” he said. “Catharine always strove to do that. She always tried to see goodness in people and bring out the goodness in others.” 

Patricia McCoy, BC Law’s inaugural Mutual Insurance professor of law, described Wells as brilliant. 

“She was a renaissance woman in the sense that she was both a legal philosopher and she was a brilliant litigator, a brilliant lawyer,” McCoy said. 

Repetti also said that Wells’ generosity and wisdom made her an excellent friend.

“She was a good friend,” he said. “If I ever needed help with something, she was always there to help. She always had sound advice. She was very wise. Great career advice. She really had so many talents.”

According to McCoy, Wells mentored often overlooked students, giving advice and supporting them through their time at BC.

“​​Professor Wells was known for taking students who otherwise might be overlooked under her wing and really cheering them on,” McCoy said. “She was one of the biggest champions of students imaginable.”

Jockel also emphasized Wells’ encouraging nature and her dedication to teaching.

“She loved the law, she loved teaching,” he said. “And that came through both in class and after hours in her office hours or having a coffee with her.”

Jockel was co-chair of Lambda Law Students Association, an LGBTQ+ coalition at BC Law, when it was vandalized in 2013. He said Wells was a much-needed mentor during that time.

“I was so distraught, I remember going straight to her office after I saw the vandalism,” Jockel said. “She encouraged me to stay strong and to not lead with fear. … My relationship with her shifted, I saw her not just as a legal scholar, but a change agent who inspired others.”

Wells taught a variety of classes at BC Law, including courses on feminism and microagressions as well as a first-year torts class, Hililnger said. Jackel said Wells taught topics not frequently discussed in other law courses. 

“I took a class with her on microaggressions, and I also took a class with her on American legal theory, both of which introduced me to feminist scholars and those writing about intersectioniality and critical race theory that were often not highlighted in your typical civil procedures class,” he said.  

Wells published articles on microaggressions, pragmatism, feminism, and other topics in the Harvard Law Review, Northwestern University Law Review, and several other peer-reviewed journals, according to BC’s website

“She also wrote and taught about the importance of taking the time to learn from those whose experience is different from your own,” Jockel said. “And her writing pertaining to microaggressions reflect that.”

Professionally, Repetti said that Wells’ open-mindedness gave her the ability to understand and debate both sides of an argument. 

“In law practice, [you] quite frequently are negotiating with the other side if you’re trying to settle a case, and she was very generous in her praise of the other side, yet, at the same time, she was firm in her own position,” Repetti said. 

According to Hillinger, Wells was constantly working to make BC Law a better institution.

“I would say she was sort of an elder statesman looking to make the school a better place, a more diverse place, a more inclusive place,” Hillinger said. “I think that’s what she was really trying to do.”

Repetti said he hopes BC remembers Wells as an excellent academic, professor, and all-around person.

“I think she’ll be remembered [at BC] as a great scholar and also as a wonderful teacher who had a major impact on the lives of our students,” Repetti said.

Featured Image Courtesy of BC Law Magazine

March 18, 2022