Richard Charles Dahl, professor emeritus of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and its founding librarian, died April 16, following a seven-month battle with bone-marrow cancer. He was 85.
His acerbic wit could startle people, but inside he was soft as a marshmallow, with great love and loyalty to his family and friends. One of his joys was his great-granddaughter, Eleanor, who celebrated her first birthday in April.
Although his disease wore him out, Richard kept his humor to the end. While in the hospital, a nurse told him it was snowing in Phoenix, and he whispered, “Rosebud.” He was quite perturbed that she didn’t recognize his reference to the death scene in Citizen Kane.
Richard was a devout atheist and didn’t care whether any services were held after his death. “When I die, the world ends,” he said frequently. “Do whatever you like.”
He never met a book he didn’t love, and not only created a library for the law school, but one in his own home, buying books almost every time he left the house and mailing them home from trips to Europe and California. Visitors mentioning almost any subject would be treated to a stack of interesting volumes to peruse.
Richard did nothing in moderation. He was an obsessive collector of knives, workout equipment and bags of all shapes, sizes, materials and uses. He could eat a whole pie at one sitting (leaving the crust, which he considered superfluous). And he would walk from his Scottsdale home to downtown Tempe and back, even in the summer.
In college, he was on the fencing team and he had a lifelong fascination with the martial arts.
He loved hiking the golden hills and windswept beaches of his native state of California, tying complicated knots and playing endless games of chess with friends and grandchildren.
Richard was born in San Francisco in 1921, to Carl Arthur and Pearly Dorothy (Saul) Dahl.
He grew up roaming the streets of San Francisco by cable car, and told stories of escapades including an illegal ride on the sheep used to “mow” the grass in Golden Gate Park. When caught by the police who patrolled the park on horseback, Richard promptly gave them the name of a friend rather than his own. Another time, he and his friends visited the buffalo once kept at the park and released them to wander the hills of the city.
It was in San Francisco, visiting his uncle’s movie theater, that he developed his lifelong love of movies. After seeing Tarzan, he spent an entire summer living in a tree house and wearing a loincloth.
He majored in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and was thrilled this spring when grandson, Ian, signed a national letter of intent to play golf for the Cal Bears.
He attended the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration for one semester before enlisting in the Army Quartermaster Corps. From 1942-46, he served in England and France, where he learned enough of the language to meet women in the local bars.
In Dieppe, he devised a plan to use a local girl to help him row to a nearby island that held the town’s only brothel, but it was foiled when they ran into an MP and she blurted out the only English phrase she knew, “MPs no damn good,” only, as Richard related, she didn’t say “damn.”
Richard’s mother, Pearly, said she cried every day he was gone to war, and they both saved all the V-mail they exchanged.
After the war, while on a bicycle tour of England, Richard met his first wife, Grace, who had a three-year-old son, Barry. Barry eventually followed his father into the law and practices family law in Longview, Wash. Barry’s daughter, Emily, graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law in May 2007.
Richard and Grace also had a son, Kevin, a free spirit who shortly after being the Arizona State University student body president, moved to a commune, received government grants for solar power projects and worm farming, and now is executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, an organization that works to preserve the Southwest’s agricultural heritage.
Richard earned his Bachelor of Library Science from the University of California at Berkeley School of Librarianship in 1951, and a J.D. from Catholic University in 1958.
After retirement, he earned a master’s degree in history from Arizona State University.
He served as a law librarian at the University of California, and was the law librarian for the University of Nebraska, the Office of the Judge Advocate General for the Navy, and Washington state. He also was the Civil Division Librarian for the Department of Justice and the U.S. Treasury Department’s librarian.
He co-authored several law books including: Military Law Dictionary, The American Judge, Effective Speaking for Lawyers, and Crime, Law & Justice.
He also wrote many articles and was especially fond of those he wrote for non-law publications, like “I’m Teaching my Son to Fight Dirty,” its sequel, “I’m Teaching my Wife to Fight Dirty,” and the infamous, “Keep the Dames out of the Locker Room,” which was prompted by a schedule at the ASU gym that gave women and men alternate times in the only locker room available. Richard also threatened a personal nude “walk through” if the women didn’t clear out.
He briefly was an investigator for an insurance company, and told of surreptitiously following people wearing a trench coat and homburg, only to be confronted by a little old lady whom he hadn’t fooled at all.
In 1966, Richard was recruited by Willard Pedrick, the founding dean of the ASU College of Law, and was one of the school’s founding faculty. He amassed the 60,000 volumes needed for accreditation and then the 100,000 needed to establish research library class.
Patricia White, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said Richard’s contribution to the school was invaluable.
“Part of Professor Dahl’s legacy is our high-quality library,” she said. “As one of the founding faculty of this law school and its inaugural librarian, he played an essential role in the remarkably quick move from idea to important institution that this school made.
”No law school can be a good law school without a highly effective library. It’s one of the hardest things to do when creating a law school. Our library was good from day one.”
In 1968, when Armstrong Hall was dedicated, Richard moved the books – nine linear miles of them – from Matthews Library into the round rooms of Armstrong, “breaking five book trucks and the spirit of a nervous librarian who was sure we could not fit rectangular stacks into round rooms,” he wrote.
”Undeterred by circular thinking, we got round the problem with creative thinking and luck – mostly luck.”
He once had to protect a librarian from a student wielding a hockey stick, deal with a peeper in the stacks who was looking up women’s dresses with a mirror on a stick and was asked by someone interested in genealogy how cases were filed and defiled.
He also taught legal research, ethics and government.
In a 1983 law school publication, Richard wrote about starting the library.
”Librarians seldom get the respect they deserve,” he wrote. “A student in our library once complained that all librarians seemed like people who grew up in the dark.
”He had just called my attention to the fact that someone had cataloged a philosophical treatise entitled Voyages and Cargoes under ‘Admiralty.’ Fortunately, he had not found the estate planning book cataloged under ‘Gardening.’ ”
In an article about legal research he wrote:
“A poor, but brilliant, dying chess master had nothing to leave his only son but a piece of inspired advice. His last feeble words were, ‘My son, never capture the queen’s knight pawn with the queen.’
“I doubt that I could find a bit of advice in the field of research as exactly right as that. But of all the key concepts – make a fetish of accuracy, prefer primary to secondary sources, collate all quotations word-by-word, make a record of your research, make a separate slip for each idea, etc., — the one I would probably choose is ‘never write on both sides of the paper.’ ”
Marianne Alcorn, head of reference and faculty services at the Ross-Blakley Law Library, said Richard hired her 26 years ago, and it took awhile for her to catch on to his dry wit.
“He once said to me, ‘We just got lucky when we hired you,’ and it took me years to figure out that was a huge compliment he was trying to give me,” she said. “He also once said if he got another compliment about me he would throw up. I thought it was funny.
“In the oral history interview I was so fortunate to do with him in August, I could feel his admiration for Willard Pedrick,” she said. “He thought the world of him. He loved the early days of the law school and was so proud of his part in starting it.”
A former student, Stephen Rice, recently said he chose ASU because of the extensive and important collections Richard gathered for the library, and that Richard’s government class prompted him to take an externship at the Arizona Legislature when Sandra Day O’Connor was the senate leader.
“He was the best law librarian in the country,” Rice said. “ASU was lucky to get him.”
Professor Alan Matheson, whose friendship with Richard dates back 40 years to when Matheson arrived at the College of Law, recalled Richard taught a class in Legislation and was an immediate hit with students because of his humor.
But it was Richard’s dedication to the law library that Matheson most remembers.
“He was a marvelous librarian who assembled our original collection and made it into a first-rate library,” said Matheson. “He was just a very fine man, and I will miss him very much. He will be sorely missed.”
Another close and long-time friend, Professor Michael Berch, said Richard was a “very different spirit, not the ordinary,” an iconoclast who, deep down, “was as soft as they come.
“Dick Dahl was a dream,” he said. “He was just fun. He was the master of ceremonies at a lot of the Law School functions, but the deans wouldn’t have him do it after a while because he was so fun, so outrageous, and he knew no bounds.”
Berch credited Richard with encouraging him to write his book, Introduction to Legal Method and Process, in 1985, at a time when Berch was busy with career and family obligations and nearly passed it by.
“He said, `Articles come and go, but a book is a force,’ ” Berch recalled. “I wouldn’t have written the book, but for his insistence that I do so.”
After Richard’s wife, Grace, died in 1976, he was briefly married to Bonnie Fraser, who later chose a woman as a life partner. Richard delighted in telling people that he had put her off men for life.
In 1980, he met Jeannine Dunwell, a psychiatric nursing professor at ASU, at a wine-tasting.
“There were two men there,” Jeannine said. “The other was wearing white patent leather shoes.”
They married later that year.
Richard always said Jeannine tripped him and beat him to the floor. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. They shared 27 years of adventures, family and great fun.
In addition to Jeannine, Richard’s family includes:
Son, Barry, a family law attorney in Longview, Wash., his wife, Leslie, and their children: Alexandra McElwee, an elementary school reading instructor in Everett, Wash., her husband, David, and Richard’s great-granddaughter, Eleanor; Emily, who is graduating this month from Gonzaga University School of Law; Joe, a member of the pipe-fitters union in Longview; and Ian, who will attend the University of California at Berkeley.
Son, Kevin, executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, in Tucson, his wife Bam Miller, a special education teacher in the Tucson Unified School District, and their son, Brian, a soccer enthusiast who plans to study filmmaking.
Stepdaughter, Nancy Dunwell, an art director for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., and
Stepdaughter, Judy Nichols, director of communications at the College of Law, her husband, Tom, a wire editor at The Arizona Republic, and their son, Nate, an aspiring musician in the seventh grade.
At home, Richard would say he couldn’t do any chores, “because my hands don’t match,” but he really thought mundane household responsibilities just wasted precious time for reading. When Jeannine finally exacted a pledge from him to take out the trash, he promptly set up a side arrangement, paying grandson, Nate, a quarter for every bag he hauled to the alley.
When his daughter-in-law, Bam, was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, he regularly mailed her funny cards, cartoons and jokes, throughout her surgery and chemotherapy. During his illness, she repaid the favor, gathering ridiculous things even from the walls of a local hamburger joint.
His Christmas gifts were legendary, gadgets from The Sharper Image, one type for the women, another for the men, all wrapped in a variety of bags from his collection.
He would often write love notes to Jeannine, folding them into origami birds and leaving them for her in odd places.
After his death, Jeannine was looking through Richard’s wallet and found a page torn from a book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It was clean, with crisp, folded edges, obviously something he had put there recently, perhaps for her to find, something that summarized his thoughts:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.