Henry A. Fenn
Return to Heritage of Leadership
“Tall Brother is watching you”
At 6 inches shy of 7 feet tall, Henry A. Fenn was a man of measure. His unusual height and the watchful eye he kept on activities at the University of Florida College of Law led to the now infamous posters, pasted to walls around the law school, that stated with affection, “Tall Brother is Watching You.”
As a youth, Fenn had always been interested in law. After earning an A.B. in English with a minor in history from Yale University in 1932, Fenn attended Yale Law School, where he completed his LL.B. in 1935.
Following law school graduation, Fenn married his wife, Mary, and took a job with Larkin, Rathbone & Perry in New York City where he worked in estates and trusts for six years. Eventually, the young couple moved their family to New Haven, Conn., where Fenn engaged in additional graduate studies at Yale.
Fenn became a Sterling Teaching Fellow at Yale and served as assistant dean from 1942 to 1947, holding that position and the rank of associate professor of law at Yale until his appointment at the University of Florida in 1948. UF president, Dr. J. Hillis Miller, and Dean Russell Niles recruited Fenn for the position of dean at the University of Florida College of Law, and supported Dean Fenn’s innovative ideas for the college.
The school was small during the war years, but enrollment grew following the end of World War II, and according to Dean Fenn, “there was nothing relaxed about that bunch. They wanted their degrees and they wanted to get out, so they worked around the clock.” During Fenn’s deanship at UF Law, he sought to decrease class size, employ more faculty and upgrade the curriculum. In 1953, Fenn instituted a groundbreaking course in legal ethics, whereby attorneys came from around the state to present ethical problems to the students.
Dean Fenn’s achievements at UF Law were many. He changed the curriculum which had included five-hour-a-week classes to two and three-hour courses. He stated that “five-hour courses give one faculty member too much control over the lives of the students.” With the change, students were exposed to a much broader curriculum than before. In addition, in 1955 the college was granted the Florida Chapter of the Order of the Coif in recognition of academic quality, and Fenn was dean during the desegregation conflict in the 1950s. The LSAT also became a part of the admissions process during Dean Fenn’s leadership — he was not convinced of the exam’s importance, but understood that it was accepted by the students and law schools nationwide.
Dean Fenn retired as dean in 1958 to devote more time to teaching and writing. He remained a member of the faculty for decades, teaching and researching even after his official retirement from UF in 1978. In 1975, Fenn was named a UF Distinguished Service Professor, and he received the Florida Blue Key Distinguished Faculty Award in 1971. Fenn continued to teach as an adjunct professor during the 1980s, primarily teaching estates and trusts.
Active in The Florida Bar, Fenn served on the Bar’s Special Committee on the Uniform Probate Code and was instrumental in the adoption of the 1975 code and subsequent revisions. He acted as an adviser to the Legislative Committee on Probate Reform, appointed by the 1974 Legislature, and was a member of the Bar’s Continuing Legal Education Probate Course Steering Committee. Fenn also served on the advisory committee to the American Bar Association’s Florida Probate Administration Study.
Fenn’s first love was always teaching, and he stated that he tried to stimulate student thinking.
“You can learn only a small amount in law school, but you can learn the methods of approach to legal problems and these are utilized in most areas of the law,” Fenn said. “If ever you have to choose between what you suppose to be your legal knowledge and what you know to be common sense, should ever they conflict, ride with your common sense.”
“Tall Brother” died at the age of 85 on Jan. 9, 1995 in Saranac Lake, New York. He was survived by his wife and their five children.