Elizabeth Warren hadn’t stepped foot on the University of Houston Law Center campus in nearly 15 years, not since she’d left her first full-time teaching job there.
But on a mid-September morning in 1997, Warren, by then a celebrated professor at Harvard Law School, returned to memorialize a man who had played a small but not insignificant role in her teaching career.
The five years Warren spent in this sprawling Texas city were among the most transformative of her life. She split with a husband who struggled with her ambition. She started dabbling in the research that would establish her as one of the nation’s foremost experts on consumer bankruptcy law. And she found her voice, developing the speaking style that has made the senator from Massachusetts a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Houston is where Liz Warren became Elizabeth Warren.
Now she had been asked to eulogize longtime UH law professor Eugene Smith, who, as head of the faculty hiring committee in 1978, had been an early Warren champion, urging colleagues to look past her limited teaching experience and what some perceived as her second-rate Rutgers Law School degree.
Smith, who died of complications from the polio he contracted as a child, had specifically requested that Warren speak at his funeral. But what she said inside a small campus chapel stunned her former colleagues.
With a smile on her face and humor in her voice, Warren described how Smith had invited her to his office one day just a few months after she had been hired. He shut the door and lunged for her, she said, and as she protested, he chased her around his desk before she was able to escape out the door.
“Everyone was slack-jawed,” recalled John Mixon, a retired UH professor who had been close friends with Smith and Warren. Among those listening: Smith’s ex-wife and his three adult sons.
In the pews, people exchanged glances. Some at UH disliked Smith — he’d kept a bottle of Scotch in his desk and often told dirty jokes, one colleague remembered later — but “Mean Gene,” as he was known, was generally regarded as harmless. Diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, Smith walked hunched over, his arms increasingly useless as he aged. Some wondered whether it was physically possible for Smith to have done what Warren described.
“To have this image of him chasing her around the desk, it was just comical, and she told the story without rancor,” Mixon recalled.
Her account wasn’t entirely new to him. While Warren had not shared all the specifics, she had gone to Mixon looking for help when she said Smith came on to her that day in early 1979.
Four decades later, Mixon recalls with mixed feelings what he told her: Say nothing. “My advice was that she was brand new in the business,” Mixon said. “He was an established old-guard professor with a lot of power. And if she tried to get him, she would be the one in the long term to suffer because she would become known as a troublemaker.”
Warren nodded, and as he advised, she said nothing. Not when Smith continued to flirt with her. Not when he commented on her appearance. Not when she packed up her office in the spring of 1983 to move on to bigger and more renowned schools.
Warren said nothing until she returned to UH to eulogize a man who had been both a promoter and tormentor, a man who, as she put it in an interview, “no longer had any power over me.”
At Smith’s funeral, Warren told the story in an entertaining way. Two decades later, she would recount it again in a 2017 interview on “Meet the Press,” presenting it as her own sobering #MeToo experience with sexual harassment.
By then, the times had changed, and so had she. [Continue reading…]