Cooley Law School dedicates sculpture of Justice Thomas M. Cooley on all Michigan campuses


– Photo courtesy of Cooley Law School

By Roberta M. Gubbins
Legal News

Tucked next to Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Brennan Law Library and Center for Research and Study on South Capitol in downtown Lansing is the Parsell Memorial Garden Courtyard. Recently added to the garden, a small oasis in the midst of brick and concrete, is a lifelike bronze statue of Justice Thomas M. Cooley, the school's namesake.

The unveiling and dedication of the statue, created by Grand Rapids sculptor and artist Matt Large, was held in the garden on June 26th.

"We are using today's dedication as an informal kick-off event celebrating the founding of our law school forty years ago," said Jim Robb, Associate Dean of Alumni Relations, opening the ceremony. Celebrations of the founding will continue throughout the year and a replica of the statue will be present on all of Cooley's Michigan campuses. Dedications have been held in Grand Rapids and Auburn Hills with Ann Arbor planned for the future.

"Thomas McIntyre Cooley was the greatest jurist in Michigan Jurisprudence," said Robb.

Born in Attica, New York in 1824, Cooley first read the law in his hometown and, later, in Adrian, MI. He was admitted to the Michigan bar in 1846. He was a newspaper editor, a poet, wrote pieces in the mid-1800's opposing slavery, helped organize the Free Soil party in Michigan in 1848 and became a Republican in 1856. He was Dean of the University of Michigan Law School from 1871-1883.

In 1864 Cooley was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court, serving as Chief Justice for twenty years. He wrote a number of law manuals; the most famous was Cooley's Constitutional Limitations. Nationally, he was appointed to a commission to investigate issues involving the railroads. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland appointed Cooley a Commissioner of the Interstate Commerce Commission. He died in 1898 at age 74.

Turning the discussion to the artwork, Robb introduced Don LeDuc, President of Cooley Law School, to "give some remarks on how this project was conceived."

"This statue represents the convergence of several factors," said LeDuc. "One of those is that Cooley has long been interested in restoring things like the return to a commitment to teach law students how to practice law. It is interested in restoring old buildings, revitalizing communities, and trying to resurrect the varied career of perhaps the best judge to never have served on the United States Supreme Court."

A second factor, he noted, was to have an answer to the question of “Who was Thomas M. Cooley?” A third was the notion that "crept into my head a number of years ago that we ought to have a statue of Thomas M. Cooley." And, finally, the Cooley campuses developed green space sufficient to accommodate statuary.

Justice Thomas E. Brennan, founder of Cooley Law School, commenting on the school's name, said, "Forty years ago I was told I couldn't use the name 'State College of Law.' It was suggested that the name be Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which made a lot sense for a number of reasons. Cooley was a lawyer, a scholar, an author, a teacher, a philosopher, and, more important, he was a patriot.

"If the statue we dedicate here could speak," said Justice Brennan, "it would tell us that words have meaning and meaning matters."

Cooley Law School, he commented, was founded to teach practical scholarship in the law and to prepare men and women to serve as ministers of justice in their communities. He stressed that the school wanted their students "to be practical, ethical advocates, and counselors of law."

He added, "We dedicate this statue to remind us that liberty and law are inseparable, and that the campuses of this law school enshrine the fondest hopes of every new generation of students."

At that point the statue was unveiled by Matt Large, the sculptor, LeDuc, Brennan, and Robb.

Large explained the long process that led to the statuary. He studied Justice Cooley, his words and his photos to create the sculpture.

"The statue before you," he said, "is an amalgam of all the pictures that I have seen."

The process begins with sketches, then sculpting a half sized model, which was approved. He made the life size model in wax, which was sent to the foundry to be cast in bronze. The process, called the lost wax casting process, takes three months for each statue. He worked for a year to complete the project.

In 2007 Large relocated to Grand Rapids from Wilmington, Delaware, where he spent the better part of a decade apprenticing and working hand-in-hand with former President of the National Sculpture Society, Charles Cropper Parks (now retired).

The garden is named in memory of Darryl J. Parsell, 1952-2010, Director of Alumni Relations.