June 18, 2007

Whitfield retiring from law school on June 30

by Pete Rosenbery


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CARBONDALE — Throughout her 26-year career at the SIU School of Law, associate law professor Wenona Y. Whitfield's focus has been on her students — not on being known as a trailblazer.

Yet many of the law school's accomplishments through the years are linked with Whitfield, who is retiring as associate dean for academic affairs on June 30. Whitfield has seen her own professional career parallel the growth of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's law school — beginning as 25-year-old student in the law school's second incoming class in 1974.

Frank G. Houdek, a professor in the SIU School of Law Library and director of the law library, will replace Whitfield as associate dean for academic affairs.

Whitfield's wealth of wisdom, sharing spirit, institutional memory and an "extraordinary sense of professionalism" will be missed, according to Dean Peter C. Alexander.

"She is a trailblazer in many ways," he said. "But in her uniquely 'Wenona-style,' she would not describe herself as one. She would describe herself as a professional person trying to do the best job she could with the skills she has. She has succeeded in that effort."

One of her most significant roles has been not only as a teacher, but also as a mentor to students and junior faculty, Alexander said.

"She is someone upon whom many of us rely as we try to do our jobs," he said.

Whitfield seemed destined to be an attorney — she interviewed prisoners in the Jackson County Jail and tracked down potential witnesses for the public defender's office in the early 1970s, and took a constitutional law class while a graduate student at SIUC. But it was while working as a community developer at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's campus in East St. Louis and attending city and county board meetings that she became fully smitten.

"When they really got in a spot they turned to a lawyer, and the lawyer would mumble some words and that would be the end of the conversation. I really wanted to know what the lawyers were saying because I could see with that kind of knowledge you could do so much more," she said.

In addition, it would have been easier to "cut through the red tape if I had known what the red tape was," Whitfield said with her infectious laugh.

In law school, Whitfield learned she enjoyed business and commercial law more than criminal law. She credits B. Taylor Mattis, her former property law teacher, with setting standards she later strived for upon her return to the law school as a teacher in 1981. After earning her law degree in 1977, Whitfield became a probate attorney and was in private practice for several years in Chicago.

Many times, she was the only woman in the courtroom except for a court reporter. Whitfield recalls once when she stepped to the bench with her client and the judge asked her what she and her husband were going do about a particular case. Although she was professionally dressed as were other attorneys, it didn't compute with the judge that she could be an attorney, she recalled.

"That won't happen today," Whitfield said. "These young women today will go into the courtroom and not be mistaken for a court reporter or the wife of an attorney."

When she returned to Carbondale to teach in 1981, Whitfield and Mattis were the only two women on the faculty. Today, 15 of the law school's 33 tenure-line, non-tenure track and library faculty are women.

Named an associate dean in 2004, Whitfield readily acknowledges her first love is teaching and interaction with her students — something she did not get as much time to do as an administrator. As an associate dean, she spearheaded the drive for online registration at the law school and also oversaw class scheduling.

Whitfield smiles when the talk turns to teaching, and discussing the transition she sees in first-year law students in her property law classes.

"I love seeing them get confidence and knowledge," she said. "At the beginning of August, a puff of wind would knock them over and by May, they are confident to challenge me. I don't think that's wrong, and I love that."

A Chicago native who loves the Chicago Bears, Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox, Whitfield is able to recite the lineup of the '59 'Go-Go' Sox. It is her love of the rural area that attracted her to Southern Illinois.

Whitfield plans to leave the region, however, and looks forward to potentially teaching overseas — one of her two passions — the other being tennis, a game she picked up for the first time in her mid-40s. She promises to return to Southern Illinois for visits.

Whitfield is a two-time Fulbright grant recipient, spending time as a visiting law professor in 1991-92 at the University of Ghana and in 2001 at Tsinghua University in Beijing, People's Republic of China.

"I would like to do more of that," she said. "Perhaps not for as long a period of time, but I really like teaching American law and our views of the legal system in places outside the United States. It gives me an opportunity to visit places without being a tourist."

In addition, she wants to continue her work with Habitat for Humanity.

"I can't build, I can't hammer. But I can do the legal work," she said.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton nominated Whitfield for federal judge after recommendations by then-U.S. Sens. Paul Simon and Carol Mosley-Braun. She received a Senate hearing, but her nomination was never acted upon.

Disappointed at the time, Whitfield said she always believes things work out for a reason.

"It wasn't under my control; there was nothing I could do about it," she said, adding that she was honored by the nomination.

"As far as I'm concerned, teaching is the best job," she said. "The most important thing to me is that they learn the material. I want them to say that nobody works harder than she does to make sure we understand the material."

Whitfield doesn't have "pangs of regret" about her decision to retire because the law school is thriving, particularly with recent faculty additions, she said. Founding Dean Hiram Lesar's vision of a strong, vibrant law school that produces solid lawyers for Southern Illinois and the nation is being realized, she said.

"I really credit that to the young faculty that I see coming along," she said. "There is so much enthusiasm. They have the kind of enthusiasm that I remember I had. They have the 'why don't we try this?' attitude, and are just as committed as I am to teaching."