Eulogy for Bernie Segal

Professor Bernard L. Segal 1930-2011

Professor Bernard L. Segal

I’m David Phillips.  I was Bernie’s student at Penn Law School in 1969, when in my second year I took the course he taught as an adjunct.  Called “Trial of an Issue of Fact,” it was basically the same course he taught for almost 40 years at Golden Gate. 

But I got to know him the year before, when I offered to help him defend a Penn undergraduate who in the superheated political atmosphere of the time had been accused of storing a bomb under her bed.  Bernie asked me: What is a bomb, exactly, under Pennsylvania law?  This was the first time my answer to a legal question carried consequences for someone other than myself.  I was honored as well as amazed that he trusted me, in my first year, with such a responsible task. 

I guess Bernie was satisfied, because he kept giving me opportunities.  He sent me into a prison, the first time I had ever been inside one.  He sent me to a slum apartment in North Philadelphia to check out bullet holes in the wall.  A few years later he sent me to Zürich to work on receiving a shipment of gold from Africa.  Everything he asked me to do I learned from.  Much later, he got me involved in his Mock Trial Program – I am still learning from that after 22 years.

Bernie told his students when they finished with his class that they were entitled to three free phone calls for advice.  A lot of us didn’t stop at three – I certainly didn’t.  Whenever I asked Bernie’s advice he gave my problem patient attention and the full benefit of vast experience, almost always with at least one good story thrown in.  He was my mentor when I was a young lawyer – somehow he stayed my mentor for 43 years.  How can someone have the same mentor for 43 years?  Shouldn’t a person grow up and not need a mentor?  But I never grew beyond the point where Bernie could teach me something.

Now not a day goes by without my thinking to call him, or wanting to ask him about something, or starting to send him an item from the Internet.  I am shocked that I can no longer reach him.  I hate it and don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.  I certainly hope I never do.


Bernie lived life as fully as anyone I’ve ever known – it’s hard to think how anyone could have done more with what he was given, or wasted less time.

He took great pleasure in his work.  When he was 79 and visibly tired from running so many mock trial teams all at once, on top of teaching, I asked him if he ever thought about slowing down.  His eyes got a stubborn, flinty look and he said that would be like death – he wanted to keep teaching right until the end, and he did just that.

Bernie lived immersed in relationships, with students and many others, most of which for most people would be casual acquaintanceships, but not for him.  Putting serious life energy into his relationships was a pleasure for Bernie, and another way he lived fully – the more energy he spent in this way, the more he had.  

Without being a voluptuary, Bernie had a deep appreciation of sensual pleasures: food, wine, music, theatre, travel to more than 60 countries (we counted them once).  Seeing him tuck a cloth napkin into his collar before starting in on a plate of spaghetti emboldened me to do the same.  Bernie loved cigars, and those who go back to the good old days before the Taliban outlawed smoking, before the rise of the Pleasure Police, remember that they were his trademark.

And of course women.  Bernie loved women, in as many senses as the word is capable of.  Wherever Bernie was, there was usually a lovely young woman around.  I remember his delight, at a Paris museum with one of his girl friends, when they both got discounted tickets – she got the youth rate and he got the senior rate. 

He was a romantic of the old school, given to passionate courtships and extravagant gestures involving balloons and disguises.  I think these gestures and tableaux, which were really marks of respect and expressions of generosity, were almost as much fun for him as what sometimes followed.

His limitless supply of stories, which everyone who knew him remembers fondly, were expressions of generosity in the same way – he already knew the story, but he wanted someone else to get a kick from it too.  Sharing stories, experience, and wisdom in this way was not a duty for him, but added to his pleasure in life.


The Greek philosopher Epicurus said: “Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.”

Bernie had a deep talent for friendship.  The CD being distributed at the table near the entrance contains stories and memories by many of his friends.  As I mentioned at yesterday’s Golden Gate memorial event, preparing the CD helped me realize what an astonishing number of people Bernie not only knew, but knew well and put energy into helping.

All of them loved him, and all had with him what seemed to them a special relationship.  Each one was special, to Bernie and to the other person, but Bernie’s gift was to have special relationships with thousands of people. 

At a very conservative estimate of 50 students a year for 40 years, that’s 2000 students, of whom Bernie kept up with a surprisingly large number.  Even those who didn’t keep up relationships remembered him vividly.  I mentioned Bernie’s passing to two of my law school classmates, neither of whom had seen him more than once, as far as I know, since graduating in 1971.  Both reacted to news of his death with spontaneous and heartfelt expressions of sorrow and loss.  Who else among our teachers of 40 years ago would we feel that way about?

If he had 2000 students, there must have been nearly as many who know Bernie for other reasons – people who met him through his practice, or through other people, or just along the way.  It was a remarkable experience to go around San Francisco with Bernie – he knew people everywhere.  We’d go into a restaurant and the owner would greet Bernie like a landsman from the old country – or it could as easily be the waiter as the owner.  And it was not a generic greeting, either – they would talk very specifically about things going on in their lives.  This happened in Philadelphia too.

Even people with whom he did not have a close relationship remembered him vividly.  When I told a college classmate, not a lawyer, who lives in Japan and had met Bernie only once at a party perhaps 15 years ago, he replied that Bernie was a “noble and generous spirit.”  How many people you met once 15 years ago do you remember at all?

I have often heard it said that people who die live on in lives they touched.  I always thought that was not really true, but was just a crude denial of the finality of death.  But after reading for the CD more than 100 pages of how people remembered Bernie, I’m no longer so sure about that.


For Epicurus, the aim of philosophy was to help attain a tranquil life, peaceful and free from worry and preoccupying fear, living self-sufficiently surrounded by friends.  Bernie succeeded completely in doing this.

The lack of fear and worry and anxiety in his life would have been exceptional in anyone, but especially in a trial lawyer.  It wasn’t that he was reckless, or without reasonable caution, or that he did not try to influence events.  But as far as I knew, and I knew him pretty well, he accepted risk and uncertainty with calm.  Tranquility as Epicurus means it is not the same as apathy or even placidity.  Bernie was passionately engaged in lots of things all the time, but did not allow anxiety about the outcome to corrupt his tranquility.  As sages from Greece to India have taught, this is the goal of philosophy.

I remember in particular a conversation I had with him after his last illness had been diagnosed and some awful surgical responses proposed to him.  We discussed his decision not to pursue these measures – he wasn’t asking my advice, exactly, but using me as a sounding board for his decision already made.  “I’m 81 years old,” he said, “and that’s not how I want it to be at the end of my life.”  We would each of us do very well to look death in the eye so calmly.

As Epicurus, the philosopher of pleasure, wrote: “The body sees as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time.  But the mind, understanding the end and limit of the body, can still enjoy life is even when death is imminent.  Banishing terror of the future, the philosophic mind obtains a complete and perfect life, and has no longer any need of unlimited time.”

Bernie’s favorite motto, often repeated in recollections of him, was “if you can’t get a good result, you should at least get a good story.”  There are dozens of good stories – many of them are on the CD.  But I think Bernie also got a good result.  Naturally he preferred life to death.  He would regret missing this gathering and the one yesterday.  He would very much regret missing the next semester and the next class of students.  And I’m sure he regretted most of all leaving his grandchildren while they were so young.  But I am pretty sure he was able to look back, as he saw the end clearly coming, without the regret most of us have that we have not made the most of the talents we were given, or have not spent the time we had to the fullest.  A person who can do that at the end of a long life, Epicurus would agree, has achieved a good result.  


September 2011