March 9, 2006


By John Pope, Staff writer
New Orleans Times-Picayune

John Kramer, a merry intellectual who bolstered Tulane Law School's commitment to social justice during his decade-long deanship, died Tuesday of complications from diabetes at his New Orleans home. He was 68.

"The theme of John's life was attempting to bridge the gap and provide equal access through the law, " said his wife, Sandra Scarbrough Kramer. "His whole life and study of the law dovetailed."

During his tenure as dean from July 1, 1986, to June 30, 1996, Mr. Kramer instituted a mandatory community service requirement and increased from three to eight the number of clinics where law students can hone their skills while representing people in cases involving specialties such as immigration law, appeals and environmental law.

"He had a lifetime commitment to legal education and, particularly, clinical legal education, because that's where the law has the capacity to change people's lives, " said David Marcello, executive director of the Public Law Center, which trains students from Tulane's and Loyola's law schools in fields such as legislation and the development of agency rules.

Mr. Kramer also increased the faculty size by half, recruited aggressively to make the student body more diverse and oversaw the construction of a new law school on Freret Street.

"He had a robust enthusiasm for everything he did, " Marcello said. "He had a good life and a good time living it."

Although some people regard law as "a dry, arcane area, " Mr. Kramer viewed it as "a vibrant, living thing, " said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who taught at Tulane Law School from 1988 to 1991.

"John got so much fun out of the law, " Turley said.

Along the way, friends said, Mr. Kramer, an outspoken liberal, enjoyed kicking up controversy, whether it was by joining the successful campaign against Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, questioning America's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan during World War II or publishing the country's first gay and lesbian law journal.

When people protested, "he was in seventh heaven, " said Gary Roberts, who was vice dean under Mr. Kramer. "He loved that people got angry at him, because he knew he was making them think. He knew he was accomplishing something. He told me that if nobody gets angry at what you're doing, you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing."

Mr. Kramer also delighted in doing the unexpected. Despite his liberal leanings, he started a chapter of the conservative Federalist Society -- and joined it.

"He felt they were at least questioning things and doing something different, " his wife said. "He never wanted an idea excluded."

A New York City native, Mr. Kramer frequently told this story about himself to explain his behavior: When he passed a pond on the way to school and saw that the water was utterly calm, he simply had to pick up a rock and toss it in.

"He couldn't stand to see anything so tranquil, " Roberts said. "He loved to stir the pot. . . . He couldn't stand to let things be the way they were."

An honors graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Mr. Kramer was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Cambridge and a clerk at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Among the lawyers he clerked for was Thurgood Marshall, who later became the U.S. Supreme Court's first black justice.

Mr. Kramer also worked on Capitol Hill, where he was counsel to Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, D-N.Y., on the House Education and Labor Committee. As executive director of the National Council on Hunger and Malnutrition in the late 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Kramer drafted much of the legislation on food stamps and meals at schools. He also created the Project for Older Prisoners to offer legal advice and representation to older inmates with longer sentences.

From 1971 until he came to Tulane, Mr. Kramer taught at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., where he became an associate dean.

After retiring as Tulane's law dean, Mr. Kramer returned to full-time teaching -- and to imbuing students with his passion for public-interest law.

"He believed that . . . if they didn't learn in law school about their commitment to society, they would never learn it, " Turley said. "In teaching students about the law, he taught them a lot about themselves.

"There are few ideals: the 1968 Mustang, the Hope diamond and John Kramer, " he said. "There are some items that just can't be replicated."

In addition to his wife, survivors include three sons, Dr. Christopher Kramer of Charlottesville, Va., Daniel Kramer of New York City and Andrew L. Kramer; a stepson, Gladstone N. Jones III of New Orleans and New York City; a sister, Alison Kramer Buck of Paris; a stepbrother, Edward Rosenthal of New York City and White Plains, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.

Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements, which are incomplete.

Kramer obituary information clarified: An obituary on John Kramer in Thursday's paper erred on who created the Project for Older Prisoners (POPS) and the purpose of the group. Mr. Kramer was the dean of Tulane Law School when POPS was created by Jonathan Turley, at the time a professor at the school. The group assists prisoners regardless of their sentences. (3/11/2006)

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John Kramer
Founding Chair