M. Minnette Massey, Legendary UM Law Professor, Dies at 89


M. Minnette Massey, an original glass ceiling shatterer and leading advocate for diversity, decades before the word entered the popular vernacular, died Sunday at the age of 89. 

M. Minnette Massey

The fair-haired, green-eyed spitfire was one of the “First Wave,” of fourteen woman pioneers who elbowed their way into the male-dominated world of American law school professors. (Miami Law supplied two others – Soia Mentschikoff and Jeanette Ozanne Smith.) Massey began teaching legal research as an assistant law librarian but rapidly asserted her dominance in the machinations of Florida civil procedure. 

Massey would catch the attention of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, who admired her dazzling intellect and skills as a raconteur. Think Shirley MacLaine, only loads smarter. She ascended to assistant dean, then first woman dean, all the while imprinting armies of young lawyers as masters of the intricacies of litigation and the rightful leaders of their profession. She was a force to behold and used her powers to lead the law school into the integration of both the faculty and student body. 

"The University of Miami Law School has lost perhaps its greatest champion," said Charlton Copeland, holder of the first M. Minnette Massey Chair in Law. "She believed in the excellence of this law school. She believed in the excellence of her students. She believed that together they might build a more excellent future.

"But she was not taken with nostalgia or bygone days. Her commitment was a commitment to a more inclusive, more relevant excellence. If that is not the mark of a great institutional and, and civic, champion, I don't know what is. I mourn Minnette's passing, but I also mourn something of the passing of Minnette's vision for Miami Law, for our law students, and for our collective civic lives," Copeland said.

In 2015, Massey, who has been described as indomitable, outspoken, adorable, irascible, deeply decent, and a little salty, formally fulfilled a promise she made to Copeland in 2008. As Massey – former acting dean of Miami Law, half a century on the faculty, early adopter of diversity, and the undisputed queen of civil procedure – exited her final class, she turned to Copeland – still a new professor with only a year under his belt – and delivered the scepter. “It’s up to you now,” she bequeathed.

From Massey, Copeland inherited the role of faculty advisor for the Florida Supreme Court Internship program. He fondly remembers that in a conversation with Massey a few years into his advising, she complained that he had seemingly picked the students with the best academic record, forgetting the impact that the program could have on the lives of students whose promise could be seen despite less than stellar grades. She reminded him that teachers are empowered to imagine futures for students that they don’t yet see, and sometimes teachers are best equipped to help them achieve such futures.

"Our dear friend and colleague Minnette Massey was a remarkable person and genuinely one of a kind," said Patricia D. White, dean of Miami Law.

Massey, whose first name was Maria – a name she never used – was born in 1927 in Stratford, Connecticut, one of five sisters and a brother. In her six-page vita, it notes that she first arrived at the University of Miami in 1944 as a freshman, class of 1948. She would graduate from Miami Law in 1951, and join the faculty in 1958, while simultaneously earning an LL.M. as a Kenison Fellow at New York University.

The M. Minnette Massey Chair in Law was established through the generosity of a consortium of Miami Law alumni and friends. The family asks that instead of flowers, donations be sent to the M. Minnette Massey Scholarship Fund at the University of Miami School of Law.

"In life, you occasionally have the opportunity of meeting someone whose impact on her world was unique,” said Joseph P. Klock, Jr., J.D. `74, who chaired the fundraising committee for her Chair. “Dean Massey fought all the fights. Dean Massey gave of herself and her personal career to serve UM and never looked back. She made such a difference to so many of our alums. I suspect that she and Janet Reno will make quite an impact in their new home. A life touched by Dean Massey was a life changed for the better. God bless her.”

Services are on Friday, November 18 at 4:30 p.m. at Trinity Cathedral-Miami, with a reception to follow on the grounds.

CONTACT: Catharine Skipp at 305-773-5801 or cskipp@law.miami.edu