To many who had worried about the rambling, becolumned brick building on the hilltop above Summit Hill and Henley, a new law school seems the ideal or maybe only suitably dignified use for it. About 250 people attended Friday's open house there; billed as a press conference, it turned out to be a surprisingly elaborate tribute to Congressman John Duncan Jr., a lawyer and former judge himself. The Lincoln Memorial University school, which will be formally known as the John J. Duncan School of Law, got less attention than Duncan himself, who was surprised at some turns the ceremony took.
After a prayer, the new law school's dean, Sydney Beckman, praised the building, which is in the latter stages of an interior renovation. Next, industrialist-philanthropist Pete DeBusk, credited with making the project possible, said some nice things about the school and the building and Duncan, but introduced a few others first.
From an adjacent room paraded a whole House subcommittee's worth of Republican congressmen: Hal Rogers of Kentucky, Jerry Costello of Illinois, Sonny Callahan of Alabama, Zach Wamp, and former Rep. Ron Lewis of Kentucky, plus former Gov. Don Sundquist. Former Sen. Howard Baker was supposed to be there—in fact, as of this week, the LMU website says he was there—but the elderly statesman didn't appear, citing a back injury. Sundquist read Baker's apology and remarks. At length Duncan's own sons, John and Zane, introduced the 62-year-old honoree.
"Well, I don't deserve all that," was Duncan's characteristically laconic response. Whereupon he proceeded to tell several very funny stories.
Part of the ceremony was the unveiling of the new law school's seal, which includes an image of the stately columned front of the building. It's a complicated place, the oldest, most prominent part of which was built in 1848, when it was one of only about seven schools for the deaf in America. It didn't serve as City Hall until 1925, but played that role for more than half a century. Jimmy Duncan first became acquainted with it when his father, John Duncan, was mayor, from 1959 to 1964.
The building looks brighter and more open than we remember it. Several rooms seem ready for students already, some of them wired with classroom-style television screens. A sunny room described as a courtroom is in the process of being transformed into a sloped-floor lecture hall. The central three-level addition in what was once a courtyard has been redone, with more open space and a new broad staircase in back. They've added a few restrooms.
LMU's law school is geared toward non-traditional students, especially those who have jobs and can't attend full time. The building's probably bigger than it needs to be; it sounds like for the foreseeable future, the student body won't outnumber those who showed up for the press conference. The first students, 75 part-timers, will arrive on Aug. 15. An additional 125 full-time students will arrive a year later.