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Beloved professor Henry Abraham dies at 98

Henry Abraham
Michael Martz/Richmond Times-Dispatch

Henry J. Abraham was 15 when he left Germany on his own as the Nazis rose to power. Already he’d experienced the verbal taunts and physical assaults of some of his classmates for being a Jew. On his final night on his grandparents’ farm before leaving for the United States, young Nazis tormented his family.

“For several hours during that dark night, bricks were thrown by largely young male cowardly Nazi thugs against the fortunately shuttered windows, accompanied by cries of ‘dirty Jews, get out!’” he wrote in his memoir for his family, Reflections on a Full Life. “I was petrified, and so was the kitten that had jumped into my bed.”

Abraham, a longtime UVA government professor who died Feb. 26 at 98, didn’t talk much about his early life publicly, says Phil Abraham (Law ’89), his older son. He didn’t want to be defined by it. But those experiences as a child and, later, in the U.S. Army, interrogating German prisoners of war and researching documents for the Nuremberg trials, guided his life’s work. 

He would become a leading scholar on judicial processes, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court; a close friend of several Supreme Court justices; and a beloved professor. Abraham taught in what was then the Department of Government and Foreign Affairs from 1972 to 1997 and, later, through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a UVA-affiliated program for seniors.

“I devoted my life and career to the study of constitutional law and history because I had learned firsthand how quickly democracy can devolve into a dictatorship,” he wrote in 2019 in one of his final pieces of writing. 

‘A perpetual twinkle’ 

Abraham captivated students with his deep knowledge of the justice system, the justices and the court cases. “I loved the challenge of teaching and its accompanying functions,” he wrote in his memoir. “I loved classrooms with bright young faces, and I loved lecturing, talking and advising.”

Abraham in 1972.  “I devoted my life and career to the study of constitutional law and history because I had learned firsthand how quickly democracy can devolve into a dictatorship.” Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

In the classroom, Abraham enjoyed pulling from his “Theater of the Absurd” file, which included decades-old newspaper clippings about amusing cases—such as one that involved a dead mouse in a tomato can, a woman’s resulting nervous breakdown and her husband’s anger about the loss of her affections. “He just thought the facts were so funny,” says Barbara Perry (Grad ’86), a former student, friend and director of presidential studies at UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Or he’d pull from his encyclopedic knowledge of Supreme Court cases to vividly describe the story behind one. Perry remembers his colorful description of Rochin v. California, which stemmed from the forcible removal of drugs from a suspect’s stomach. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the majority opinion, finding that the removal “shocks the conscience” and violates due process, which the 14th Amendment guarantees.

“He was a great storyteller,” Perry says. “He not only was this brilliant intellect who understood the theories of the court and constitutional law, but he could bring the cases alive because he could tell a good yarn.”

Says David Gogal (Col ’85, Law ’88), a former student and later friend: “He taught those classes without looking down at notes or anything. It was amazing how fluid his knowledge was of the Supreme Court process.”

On top of his expertise, former students also recall his mentorship, kindness and quirks. He wrote letters on his 1937 portable German typewriter, often wore a flower in his lapel and, at one point, kept a color chart of his ties to “avoid repetitiousness,” he wrote.

“He was really the kind of person who had a perpetual twinkle in his eye,” says Susan Sullivan Lagon (Col ’79, Grad ’81). Lagon, who would go on to teach at Georgetown University and is now historian at The Jefferson hotel in Washington, D.C., credits Abraham for steering her toward her first career.

“Lots of people in his undergraduate courses wanted to go to law school,” Lagon says. “I wasn’t sure if that was the right course for me at the time. I had a great talk with him, and he said, ‘I think you should teach.’ … I did, and it really did change the course of my life.”

A ‘warm port’

Abraham’s mother, understanding the danger the Nazis presented, changed the course of his life in 1937 by insisting he leave Germany for the United States. Speaking only some English, the teen moved to Pittsburgh, where his aunt was a governess. He lived with a German-Jewish immigrant family and attended high school. “It was not heaven, but it was a warm port,” Abraham wrote in his memoir.

His parents and younger brother would follow him to Pittsburgh two years later, after his father’s release from the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Abraham worked and took night classes until he was drafted in 1942. He became a U.S. citizen in 1943.

During his service in the U.S. Army, Abraham was part of a specialized language training program at Kenyon College and was eventually assigned to interrogating German prisoners of war. “I so hated that chore—I really did not want anything to do with German soldiers,” he wrote in his memoir. 

Later, he analyzed and interpreted German documents with the 6889th Berlin Documents Center, which had a direct line to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson’s office at the Nuremberg trials, he wrote. Jackson was the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg.

Abraham was a noted expert in judicial process and published books on Supreme Court appointments, civil rights law and comparative judicial law. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

Scalia, Ginsburg—and Paul Newman

Once discharged in 1946, Abraham returned to Kenyon through the GI Bill. He was briefly roommates with the actor and business-owner-to-be Paul Newman and became close friends with Olof Palme, who later became the prime minister of Sweden.

He graduated first in his class from Kenyon with a degree in political science and went on to earn a master’s degree in public law and government from Columbia University in 1949 and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1952, where he taught until he came to UVA in 1972.

By then, he was a noted expert in judicial process and would eventually publish multiple editions of all 13 of his books, which cover Supreme Court appointments, civil rights law and comparative judicial law, among other topics. He traveled the world, including with the U.S. Department of State, to share his expertise. 

Until a few years ago, Abraham would regularly visit the court to hear arguments, sometimes taking students with him. He counted the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the late Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as close friends, meeting with them in Washington and exchanging letters. 

Years ago, when Abraham fell and broke his nose, Scalia called his UVA hospital room and, wrote Abraham in his memoir, demanded, “Where the hell have you been?” 

Tribe of Abraham

When Abraham retired from UVA in 1997, the accolades rolled in. Scalia sent him a photo of the court, signed by all the justices, who, Scalia wrote, “strive to be worthy of the trust and respect of men such as you.” Ginsburg marked his retirement with a separate note that asked to “join the throng of your admirers in a rousing BRAVO!”

And a group of former students, who call themselves the Tribe of Abraham, helped endow the Henry J. Abraham Distinguished Lectureship, which brings top scholars, judges, authors and journalists to UVA.

Abraham also won a slew of top honors from UVA during his career, including the Thomas Jefferson Award, the Alumni Association Distinguished Professor Award, the Z Society’s Distinguished Faculty Award, and the IMP Society’s Outstanding Contribution to the University Community Award. 

In his final years, using a wheelchair, he remained engaged, reading and recommending books and connecting with friends and contacts. Ginsburg sometimes sent Abraham her articles and speeches, and he would reply with his thoughts. “He was writing back and forth with Justice Ginsburg until the end,” Perry says. 

Abraham was particularly disturbed by the August 2017 white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and, a year later, the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue. After a life of work prompted by the Nazis’ rise, it reminded him of Germany. “He kept saying to me,” Perry says, “‘I can’t believe it’s back.’” 

Abraham is survived by his wife, Mildred K. Abraham, who worked at Alderman Library and Special Collections until she retired in 1994; their sons, Phil and Peter; and four grandchildren.

The only thing that flustered Abraham was tardiness, Perry says, no doubt a characteristic of his early life experiences.

“Either he didn’t want to be tardy or he didn’t want anybody with him to be tardy, because time was of the essence,” she says. “He must have thought, at 15, learning those lessons and losing family members in the Holocaust, one never knows where the world will take you. He seized every moment.”