For all the anticipation at Baylor Law School leading up to professor Mark Osler’s so-called “Last Lecture” on Monday night, few would have guessed the former federal prosecutor and sentencing expert would channel singer Bill Withers.
Osler spent about 35 minutes sharing with an audience of nearly 150 people — students, former students, colleagues and community members — the seven moments or “epiphanies,” he said, that have helped shape him during his 10 years at Baylor Law School.
Osler is leaving to teach at the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) School of Law in the fall.
For someone who won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court last year, the moments Osler recalled were seemingly miniscule in comparison, things like an uncomfortable desk chair and realizing that teaching is all about the students.
“The underlying point was that none of those moments were the big achievements,” Osler said Tuesday. “It wasn’t winning the case in the Supreme Court or anything that you would say, ‘Oh, that changed my life.’
“Because, really, what changes your life are the quiet moments. Losing things. Realizing that you’ve made a mistake. That’s really the turning point, and in the end, that’s more important.”
At the end of Osler’s talk, former student Dustin Benham, who recently worked on a case with Osler, asked what he would change about Baylor Law School. Osler said students should be more willing to lend each other a helping hand and give them someone to lean on.
At that point, three Baylor theater students, planted in various places throughout the audience, stood and belted out Withers’ classic song “Lean on Me.” The audience soon joined in, singing and clapping along to the beat.
With everyone focused on the singing trio, Osler slipped out of the room unnoticed and did not return.
The moment was not lost on those in attendance.
“Everyone wanted a little bit of closure after finding out he was leaving,” said law student Amanda Hobbs, who took two of Osler’s classes. “I think that was his way of saying goodbye to all the people he’s going to miss and are going to miss him.”
Waco’s 54th State District Court Judge Matt Johnson was at the lecture. He said his wife helped Osler set up the dramatic exit.
“What he told my wife is he didn’t want a situation where he was awarded any plaques or anything like that,” Johnson said. “He just wanted to give his lecture and be able to leave, because I think it would have been difficult for him emotionally, otherwise.”
Osler, who still will teach two classes during the summer quarter before leaving for St. Thomas, said Johnson’s assessment was spot on.
“I really didn’t want it to be a situation where everybody is standing there, clapping for me,” Osler said. “I didn’t want it to be about me. . . . I just didn’t want the lecture to end up with it being about anything other than what I was trying to say, which is that it’s about the students at that school, who I really care about.”