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‘He built cathedrals’: Law school community remembers professor John Nagle

| Wednesday, August 28, 2019

John Copeland Nagle is remembered as a man of faith.

As Notre Dame’s John N. Matthews professor of law, Nagle walked in the light of Christ in everything he did — as a “beloved teacher, as a prolific scholar and as an exceptionally generous colleague,” former Notre Dame Law School dean Patricia O’Hara said.

“He saw that light in all those whom he met, and he reflected that light in all he did — in his scholarship, which examined issues of environmental law, often from an explicitly Christian perspective premised on biblical concepts of stewardship; in his interactions with students and colleagues, which were marked by warmth, generosity, and humility; and in his role as a loving husband, adoring father and faithful brother,” O’Hara said in an email.

Nagle died May 18 following surgery and a brief illness. He was 58 years old.

Elizabeth Adams, a 2011 law school graduate, was Nagle’s student and research assistant. Adams said Nagle once called her into his office after she did poorly on a final in her first year in law school. Impressed with her writing ability and analytical skills, he offered her a job as a research assistant.

Nagle exercised the same dedication in all of his interactions, Adams said.

“I think one of the most striking things about him is he was so consistent and authentic in every area of his life,” Adams said. “He approached his profession the way he approached his family and the way he approached his faith and it was always just with such commitment and consistency. But he was seriously the most consistently kind person I’ve ever met in my life. He lived his values in a way that is pretty rare.”

Within the legal sphere, Nagle’s specialty was environmental law. A dedicated outdoorsman, he published numerous books and articles on the subject. His work often conveniently brought him to spectacularly beautiful national parks, law professor Rick Garnett — who started at Notre Dame Law School the same day as Nagle — said.

“I will miss teasing him, as I often did, about the sweet deal he arranged by deciding to study ‘scenic law’ and national parks,” Garnett said in an email. “‘How great is it,’ I would say, ‘that your “business trips” involve going to Denali and the Grand Canyon?’”

A devout Protestant, Nagle often incorporated his faith into his scholarship on environmental issues.

“He was so passionate about the work that he did and he wanted to make sure that we all understood it and understood the magnitude of it,” Adams said. “He was courageous and unafraid about pushing the boundaries. I mean, only at Notre Dame would you have such an esteemed academic blending faith-based work so much with environmental-based work, but he even took it a step farther.”

Professor Bruce Huber, one of Nagle’s colleagues at the law school, said he suspected Nagle’s synthesis of faith and scholarship played a role in Notre Dame’s decision to hire him.

“I don’t know exactly whose radar screen he showed up on first, but I’m sure that as soon as people caught wind that there was this rising scholar … that was not only a faithful Protestant but was incorporating these perspectives into his work, I’m sure that he would have jumped to the top of the list,” Huber said.

Nagle was such an accomplished scholar, Huber said, that it is hard to pinpoint one piece of his work that rises above the rest in terms of significance.

“I bet if you were to interview 10 scholars outside Notre Dame and ask what his key contribution to environmental law scholarship was, you’d probably get 10 different answers,” Huber said.

Nagle loved the outdoors beyond the legal sphere, Huber added. He remembered his friend would raffle off a canoe trip on the St. Joseph River as part of an annual fundraiser at the law school.

“He and his wife would generally take folks out canoeing and then they would go out for lunch or go out for drinks or come over to his place for dinner afterwards,” Huber said.

A family man, Nagle was dedicated to his wife and daughters. Adams said Nagle’s family was an omnipresent part of his work and teaching.

“We’re fortunate enough at Notre Dame to get to know our professors at a really cool level, but his love of family was evident from day one in everything that he did,” she said. “He loved [his wife] Lisa and the girls so much that as soon as he started lecturing, he would automatically start speaking about them five minutes in. It was moving.”

Huber echoed that sentiment, adding that Nagle’s love of family extended beyond his own.

“This was really where life’s action is for him, so he was always telling you what his kids were up to,” he said. “As much as he would tell me every minute detail of what his kids were up to, he wanted to hear about every minute detail of what my kids were up to, too. He would drop by the home every now and then with a random set of cupcakes, [saying], ‘I just thought your kids might need some cupcakes. Here’s some cupcakes.’ Or [he] brought over a cup of coffee for my wife, [saying] ‘I thought she might want a latte.’ He was just always doing generous things like that — random acts of kindness.”

Nagle also often brought students into his family, hosting class dinners at his house and inviting students and research assistants to his family’s meals.

“I really became part of his family,” Adams said. “They were always so welcoming. Dinners at their house began feeling like family dinners.”

Nagle was “extraordinarily hospitable,” Huber echoed.

“He would always be having his students over to his house for dinner, either students in his class, if he was teaching 60 students in the class — it didn’t matter,“ Huber said. “There must have been two or three nights a week during school time when he had something going on at his place, not always students. It was sometimes either folks from his church or through his wife’s ministry or various other things but he was just hosting people all the time.”

Many of Nagle’s colleagues expressed hope he will be remembered not only as a decorated and accomplished academic, but also for his kind and selfless character.

O’Hara said she saw Nagle’s generosity and humility captured when he “squirreled himself away” for six weeks to write a replacement law review article for a young colleague. The colleague had hoped to withdraw an article from one publication and instead publish it in a more prestigious platform, but had already committed — until Nagle intervened and offered to fill his spot despite the approaching deadline.

“I never once heard John recount this story to anyone,” O’Hara said. “He simply heralded the achievement of his young colleague. I heard the story months later from the dean of the other law school involved.”

Garnett emphasized the importance of Nagle’s faith in both his professional and personal life.

“On a personal level, I’m sure that all of his friends will struggle — and, probably, fail — to find someone else in their lives who is as amiable, charitable and decent as John,” Garnett said. “His absence will leave a hole in all of his friends’ lives. On a professional level, his was an important and unique voice in the legal academy. The main thing about John, that everyone knows and everyone will remember, is that he ‘walked the walk’ as a Christian. He was always kind, always assumed the best, and did his best to love his neighbor.”

Upon leaving his memorial service, Huber said he noticed a quiet determination on the part of attendees to carry forth the values Nagle prioritized in his own life.

“I think many of us are feeling inspired to not only continue to do great scholarship, but to do it with this strong, human element in which we make sure we are, above all, fostering loving relationships with those in our field, with those in our family, with those in our school and just always … keeping the human beings who are around us at the center of the story,” Huber said.

When thinking about Nagle’s life and legacy, Adams said she was reminded of a gospel story she heard at church — one she linked to Nagle as an illustration of her mentor’s character.

“There was this parable about these three masons who were helping to build this cathedral, and one was miserable because he was like, ‘I just lay brick,’” Adams said. “The second one was a little less miserable because he was like, ‘Oh, I just build a wall.’ The third one was happy as a clam and he was like, ‘I’m so proud of my work because I’m building a cathedral.’ Nagle just approached everything with that kind of bigger vision of the greater purpose. … He built cathedrals with everything.”

A version of this story was published June 17.

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. Formerly The Observer's Notre Dame News Editor, he's now a proud columnist for the paper.

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