Central Valley’s Only Law School Turns 40

Written by Todd R. Brown

In 1970, when San Joaquin College of Law welcomed its inaugural class, the Beatles were a band (for a bit more), the floppy disk made its debut (although the PC was a ways off), the infamous AMC Gremlin entered America’s roadways (just Google it) and Americans celebrated the first Earth Day.

Plenty has changed since 1970, including the address of the law college a couple times. What has grown in a clearly positive direction in those four decades has been the influence of the legal training grounds, whose alumni include 15 judges; the district attorneys of Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties; and more than a quarter of practicing lawyers in the region.

Based since 1997 in the old Clovis High School building, the college plans alumni reunion events Sept. 10 and 11, including a gala celebration at Fort Washington Country Club. Details are at www.sjcl.edu/40th.

Dean Janice Pearson, who has overseen the school for a quarter century, said the biggest changes for the college have been getting regional accreditation on top of state accreditation, meaning students can get financial aid, and moving into the 90-year-old high school building, which provides a more fitting atmosphere for the study of law than at least one previous incarnation of SJCL, a Fresno strip mall.

One current amenity is a mock courtroom that was built with a $50,000 donation – on the singular condition that the room have wood panelling.  Pearson said plenty of other work went into rehabbing the historic building when the college took it over.

“There was a coyote living in the basement,” she said.  “A large variety of creatures were living here.  It was a major project clearing it out.  But it turned out just beautifully.”

Set to attend 40th anniversary events is class of ’76 alum C. William Brewer, a partner with Motschieldler, Michaelides & Wishon in Fresno.  Back in the day, he was planning to attend Harvard for an M.B.A. when the Vietnam War altered his course.

The Navy strike fighter pilot led one of the first air attacks on North Vietnam after President Nixon in 1972 repealed Johnson’s four-year bombing halt above the 20th parallel.

Before the moratorium, Brewer aid his plane sometimes encountered single surface-to-air missiles that he would outmaneuver  by making sharp, last-second turns that forced the SAMs to explode behind their targets.  Yet during the bombing halt, Soviet aid to the north enabled the buildup of ”the greatest ground-to-air defense in the history of modern warfare” at the time, Brewer said.

And so, he said of that fateful post-buildup raid: “There were 97 SAMs locked onto my airplane.  That’s waht I was told by the ‘spies in the sky.’  I’d been picking them up like flaming arrows right below me.  Two exploded outside my cockpit.  They were literally 24 inches outside my canopy.”

Brewer lost most of the plane’ control and was forbidden from returning to his aircraft carrier, the USS Kittyhawk.  “I eventually made it to the nearest friendly (air) field, which was Da Nang, 300 nautical miles from where I was hit,” he said.  “I’m blessed.  I never should have survived those powerful exploding warheads.  Everyday is a special day for me.”

Based at Naval Air Station Lemoore in Kings County, Brewer said after that he decided to “take a sabbatical” from heading east.  Instead, he learned about the nearby law college and enrolled.  “It took me several years to kind of get over the trauma of my war experience, he said.  “It was important that I keep my mind occupied.”

Thinking he’d study there for just a year, Brewer said his stubborn nature pushed him to complete the four-year night program despite also working full-time to support a family; he had also met his wife, Lyn, at a church in Fresno.  Today, they live in Madera County, have three grown children and run a tree-fruit ranch in the Reedley area that is set to nurture 2,500 cherry trees this winter.

Brewer said he recalls “small classes, a good close group and terrific instructors who were active judges or practicing lawyers” at the law college, which was then on the Fresno Pacific University campus.  He also recalled lugging his typewriter to exams as an alternative to scribbling in testing blue books.

Of the “personal computer” of the day that presaged contemporary PCs, he said: “They filled this massive room.  They wouldn’t do what an iPhone can do.”

Class of ’84 alum John F. Garland, a sole practitioner in Fresno who does mostly federal defense work, attended San Joaquin College of Law when it was in a strip mall on Shields Avenue.  The Huntington Beach expatriate said his faculty advisor at Cal State Fullerton told him the law school had a good reputation, and that was enough to get Garland in the door.

“I thought it was an outstanding education,” Garland said.  “Smaller class sizes, the professors were all practicing attorneys or judges.  It wasn’t just total academic instruction, it was people in the trenches doing the work.”

His wife, Susan, also grew up in the Southland but was originally from the Valley, and the couple decided to put down roots in Fresno.  “We thought it would be good to raise our family here rather than deal with the hustle and bustle of Southern California,” Garland said.  The couple has two grown boys, Samuel in Sanger and Joseph in Fresno.

Although specializing in federal cases such as white-collar and drug-related crimes keeps him isolated from many fellow law college graduates, he says he tries to keep in touch with some classmates.  “I guess if you call that networking...,” he said with a chuckle.

Thomas Campagne, president of Campagne, Campagne & Lerner in Fresno handling agribusiness matters such as irrigation disputes, graduated from SJCL in 1975, the second class to gain Juris Doctors.  Speaking this week from his cabin at Shaver Lake, he said he had applied to Santa Clara University to study law when his father passed away, leaving the family farm in Navelencia to Campagne and his sisters.

Deciding to stick close to home to oversee the growing of peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots, he learned from a friend about “a small law school” that had recently started locally.

“It was wonderful to be taking night classes from practicing judges and attorneys,” Campagne said. “it was a real tough program; I understand it still is.  We started off with 72 (students).  And they worked and worked – and they graduated 12.  Just making it past the first year was not an indication you’d make it.  They flunked one guy out the last year; he took the bar and passed anyway.  That was out 13th.”

Campagne’s son Justin practiced for a while in San Francisco and is now Thomas’ partner locally; Thomas has two daughters and another son, Luke, who decided after 9/11 occurred to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force, taking a rare route through ROTC to get there.  “He’s ambidextrous, and that comes in handy,” Thomas said, recalling coincidentally that one of his own teachers at the law college, Judge Hammerberg, was a World War II bomber pilot in Europe who sometimes shared a war story in class.

Pearson said upcoming SJCL goals are to add library space – accreditors require a certain amount of physical volumes – and to get national American Bar Association accreditation, which will require the college to provide a full-day program for students.  About 200 would-be lawyers study there today; the first graduating class was 15 souls.

Reflecting on the legacy of the college to the community, she said “You know that there are people who had families and jobs here who have gone on to do fabulous things just because they got the opportunity.”