A Full Life

by John K. Notz, Jr. '53

Although I had a bit of a rocky start, I came to believe that Williams College was an ideal undergraduate school for me.

The two professors at the college who influenced me the most were (1) Charlie Keller, whose words of approval of an essay that I wrote, instead of answering a mid-term exam question, led me to understand that I could write effectively; and (2) Don Richmond, who told me that I would not be approved for honors work in mathematics. (In his assessment of me, he was quite right.)

I went on to law school, to defer military service and at my father's insistence. After graduation from law school, I went into military service and soon put in the 11 months in Korea that I had intended to avoid, but it was a blessing in disguise. Having been assigned, unwittingly, into an unusually difficult role in the U.S. Air Force HQ for Korea, I matured fast, and, leaving Korea, I spent the next 16 months of my tour of duty based in and about Tokyo, troubleshooting assignments in Japan and everywhere in the Pacific Air Command, other than Hawaii. I matured further.

I was 28 when I returned to Chicago to practice law. I should have realized that my USAF experience would earn me litigation assignments, and I was a civil litigator, handling off-beat cases for upwards of six years when a new firm client, the Perkins & Will architectural firm, came into the Gardner, Carton & Douglas law firm. I was asked to be its outside general counsel.  That was a career-forming opportunity, and I really liked dealing with architects. When P&W merged, I lost that relationship, but I kept its partners as friends, and whenever one or more moved on I would get a call, asking me to structure and advise his new firm.

The Gardner, Carton firm served a good number of the Chicago firms in the securities business, and the Chicago offices of several New York firms. There were similarities in the structures of small architectural firms and small securities firms, and I found myself troubleshooting in the securities industry and, soon, in the newly developing futures industry. An occasional case took me to the U.S. Supreme Court, the most important of which resulted in a landmark opinion on who controls a corporation's right to claim, or to waive, its attorney-client privileges when it enters a bankruptcy liquidation proceeding. I would not change a word in the opinion, issued by the Court 8-0, with an abstention by a justice with whom I had dealt when he had practiced law in Chicago.

In 1966, I married Janis Wellin, who had obtained her B.A. in French at Smith College. By coincidence, she had spent the earliest years of her life living in Winnetka, IL, where I had been raised (and which was a great source of Williams men of my time). But we had never met until she returned to live and work in Chicago in the early 1960s. We have two children, Jenny and John, each of whom married a foreign national, has had two daughters, and lives in Downtown Chicago, as we do. Jenny is solicitor general of the State of Illinois; John is CFO of HODO TOFU, the HQ of which is in Oakland, CA. Each looked at Williams College but chose to go elsewhere. Of my granddaughters, the only one of college age chose to go to the University of Michigan.

I retired from the practice of law on January 1, 1996, with an understanding that I would recommend other lawyers in the Gardner, Carton firm to my clients and cease practicing law—even pro bono—in return for an office and secretarial support as long as I wished, which was honored for about 20 years, a bit longer than the independence of the Gardner, Carton firm.

In 1996, I turned to undone personal projects that I had been accumulating, and that effort was facilitated by my having become, at the suggestion of a friend of my father, a member of The Literary Club of Chicago, which had been functioning since 1874. The weekly after-dinner delivery of formal essays by one member to his fellow members and guests turned out to be a format that I enjoyed. One of my first essays was a study of the earliest years of private practice of a landscape architect, famous still in the Midwest—Jens Jensen. I had deduced that one of my great grandfathers had been Jensen's first private client and that the success of that project, on Geneva Lake, Wis., brought Jensen the greater part of his design business in 1899-1921.  The publication of that essay in The Wisconsin Academy Review opened the door for me into the leadership of The Society of Architectural Historians, where I found myself, frequently, with Bill Pierson, who had been one of the three Williams College professors of my time—and one of the Williams Mafia leaders of major American art museums. Never, when I took Art 1-2 and Art 3-4 at Williams did I expect to get more out of those courses than out of any others.

One can find most of the essays that I have written on the website of The Chicago Literary Club—www.chilit.org

During 1995, until his death, I was much influenced in my architectural research by Leonard Eaton '43, who, after a successful career at The University of Michigan, from his retirement in a coastal town in Oregon, treated me as if I were the last of his dissertation students. (Those of Professor Eaton's papers that are not in the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan, are in the Archives of the Sawyer Library of Williams College.) Of the current academics of Williams College, I have come to know Michael Lewis best, and I pray that our respective life circumstances will permit Janis and me to join him on another tour, led by him, that focuses on one or more European cities. On my own, I would go back to Japan and to Korea in a blink.

In January, I had my 89th birthday, and expect to go on, for a few more years, in the same pattern as I have just described, for the past 25.

Janis and I divide our time between a mid-North Side of Chicago 1920's co-op apartment and a second home in the Town of Linn, much of which has shoreline of Geneva Lake, WI, a resort community supported, historically, by Chicagoans, of which I never tire of researching its 1880-1920 years.

One comment on A Full Life

  1. John (& Janis’s) story is most interesting & an enjoyable read – much appreciated for sharing. I too learned much about art & especially architecture while at Williams without knowing how much enjoyment this early learning would provide.

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