New Law Dean's Office At U Miss. To Bear Name Of First African-American Dean
OXFORD, Miss. - In 1996, the University of Mississippi lost an inspiring man when Louis Westerfield, the first African-American dean of the law school, died. Westerfield's legacy lives on through all the students whose lives he touched, and several of them are leading an effort to name the dean's office in the new School of Law for him.
When Westerfield died, The Daily Mississippian printed a story about him that included a quote from 1996 Ole Miss law graduate Gay Polk-Payton of Sumrall.
"My friends couldn't understand why I was so upset that my dean had died," she said. "When they think of a dean, they think of a figurehead, but when I think of Dean Westerfield, I think of a friend, a father figure and a mentor. He truly is my hero."
Those feelings of respect for Westerfield extend throughout the Ole Miss law alumni community.
"Dean Westerfield's impact was unimaginable," said Precious Martin, a 1997 graduate from Jackson. "He was a man small in stature but so full of substance, and his positive feelings permeated the law school. He is still sorely missed."
To honor Westerfield's life and commitment to the UM law school, Martin - along with his wife, Crystal, a '98 graduate, and former circuit judge Robert L. Gibbs, a 1979 UM graduate - is leading the charge to raise $500,000 to have the dean's office in the new law school building named for Westerfield.
"I wanted to be sure that everyone who had the opportunity to receive a legal education would always remember the contribution made by the first black dean and know that his footprints are still etched in the minds of all who knew him," Martin said.
Gibbs, working at Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes PLLC, in Jackson, was at the Louisiana/Mississippi Judicial Conference in New Orleans in August 1996 with Westerfield and had lunch with the dean the day before he died.
"I first met Dean Westerfield when I and a number of African-American judges visited the campus to meet with African-American students," Gibbs said. "Dean Westerfield stayed in touch and always encouraged me to be more active in alumni affairs and to become a member of the Lamar Order, which I did and have been ever since."
Gibbs joined in the fundraising effort because he believes Westerfield's legacy should not be forgotten.
"Being the dean, he made history and significant strides in attracting and retaining African-American students, and I thought it necessary to honor him," he said. "The dean's office is where visitors to the law school go. It is highly visible and a meeting place for students and alumni alike, and it is my opinion that such an area is an appropriate place to honor Dean Westerfield."
Westerfield had been the dean of the law school for about two years when he died unexpectedly at 47. He previously had served UM as professor of law from 1983 to '86.
Westerfield served for a year as an assistant district attorney, then joined the faculty of Southern University School of Law in 1975, soon followed by six years on the faculty of Loyola University School of Law. After serving on the UM law school faculty from 1983 to '86, he was named dean of law at North Carolina Central University. He became dean at Loyola in 1990, then returned to the Ole Miss law school.
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