By John (J.R.) Richards
Well it’s the end of an era. I knew Professor Bernhardt pretty well. I was his student in a half dozen classes, and his teaching assistant in law school. We stayed in contact after school. We would organize yearly CLE’s for him to teach at both the Alameda County Bar Association and the Contra Costa County Bar Association. His lovely wife Christine Tour-Sarkissian was also my professor. I should say we were and are friends. My wife and I hosted Professors Bernhardt out for dinner. I did a recent two part interview with Professor Bernhardt: Part 1 in August 2019 and Part 2 in October 2019.
Even though I say we were friends, the relationship was not typical of a friendship. I called him “Sir” or “Professor.” It just did not seem right to call him anything else. He never asked me to call him Roger. This was fine for several reasons. Truly we were not peers.
Talking to him was like talking to an ornery super-computer. You would say something to him and you could just imagine the millions of calculations going on in his head during that sliver of time. Then you could never be sure what he would say in response. This tension never ceased in any conversation with him, from beginning to end. If the response was lukewarm or positive, I found myself making at least a virtual sigh of relief. Otherwise, look out!
That is kind of how his law school classes worked also. Professor Bernhardt would try to dumb it all down into a digestible format. Thus he wrote the Real Property in a Nutshell books (a few among many). But that is just not how Professor Bernhardt saw the law. He could not articulate law in that fashion.
The only way I see to describe Professor Bernhardt’s view of law is similar to how Milan Kundera described a human being as a “note in a sublime Bach fugue.” Each element of a cause of action and each exception to the rule and each appellate decision out of line with others was simply a note in the music of law. Professor Bernhardt loved opera. He would spend hours blasting it on his stereo. Perhaps that was the only way the world meant sense to him.
The other metaphor I can relate to Professor Bernhardt’s way of thinking is that it was similar to a bee in a Marcel Proust book. For sure, Professor Bernhardt was heavy set. He told me once that it was on purpose to avoid the draft (this was over 40 years after the draft). But Professor Bernhardt’s mind was floating and agile and observant, seeing it all like the bee in Proust. His mind was flexible in ways that I certainly only have the power to appreciate.
Some may call him a dandy, if the old term still applies. Certainly, there was an element of performance with Professor Bernhardt. He loved canes and had over 50 of them despite not needing one. I saw him without a beard once and had no idea who it was until later. In his office, there was a photo of him jumping over a mogul on skis. On his face, the biggest joyful smile. For all of the serious work Professor Bernhardt did, he was truly happy and playful.
He called Professor Bernie Segal a fraud to his face and more than once. In fact, he said it at Bernie’s wake too. Professor Segal had come to Golden Gate University School of Law to teach a new subject, trial practice. It may have been the origin of mock trial competitions. Certainly, Bernie’s was seminal work in the area. Bernie was a rock star at the school with an Elvis-like persona. Students followed him through the halls. Bernie invigorated and inspired generations of attorneys to be trial attorneys. The “fraud” comment was tongue-in-cheek, teasing if you will. It was just that type of super-computer output from Professor Bernhardt that surprised so many people.
Along those lines, those same types of comments scared students and administrators to death. Professor Bernhardt, I think, kind of enjoyed scaring them. His tests were open book AND super hard. Being his teaching assistant was hard, because nobody understood him and everyone was in a panic. To him, law should be hard. You need to go through the crucible to get to the platonic form of it.
In class one time, he said something like, “Well, you are truly an a-hole. You’ll make a wonderful attorney!” He said that to me in a class of 20 students. I loved it. It was a mark of pride for me. But today, I am not sure anyone would be allowed to talk that way.
Professor Bernhardt was a wonderful and doting husband. He and his wife Christine Tour-Sarkissian taught several classes together. At least 2-3 times per class, you would just see the most loving look between them. They loved each other and loved the law. I cannot pretend to understand it at their level. But, as a normal guy, a witness, I have nothing but admiration and appreciation. Yes, human beings are notes in a Bach fugue, but some notes and moments in the music are truly sublime for us all to sit back and appreciate.