“LETS ROCK AND ROLL!” – A Tribute to J. Herbie DiFonzo
Walking into Hofstra Law School in August 2015 I was petrified. As a first year law student you hear horror stories of professors using the Socratic method coupled with a public reprimand if you fail to sufficiently answer a cold-call question. Fortunately for me, my civil procedure professor could not have been farther from this depiction.
I put my books down in the second row of Room 230, a lecture hall that can easily hold over 100 students. I looked around while anxiously awaiting to see what our civil procedure professor was going to be like. In walks a man with hair as white as snow and a beard to match. What really stuck out though, was his smile. I had never seen someone so genuinely happy and excited to start teaching an entire room of students who would undoubtedly struggle with Erie and differentiating personal jurisdiction from subject matter jurisdiction. Nonetheless, the first words out of his mouth were, “Is everybody ready? Lets rock and roll!” This was how he began every class for the entire year, and I’m sure every class he ever taught.
Section A was blessed to have Professor DiFonzo teach us civil procedure for the entirety of our first year. He was the perfect embodiment of who should be teaching first year law students – kind, compassionate, understanding and truly wanted each of the eighty-some-odd students in my section to succeed.
During the spring semester of my first year, a close friend of mine who was in her third year of law school was coincidentally Professor DiFonzo’s research assistant. Herbie was working on a wide variety of projects, as he always was, and was looking for additional research assistants. It was then that I started working for, or as he would correct me, working with, Herbie.
From that point forward Herbie was not only my Professor, but also an invaluable mentor and friend. I would run to his office for our weekly meetings eager to provide him with information and proposals for our projects moving forward. I was not allowed to discuss our projects until he asked me how I was doing, if I was taking on too much or if he could help me with personal undertakings like my internship search. This small, seemingly insignificant detail truly illustrates the type of person Herbie was.
He made students feel comfortable and as great of a speaker as he was, he was an even better listener. Students were frequently seeking his advice or even to use him as a sounding board, myself included. As an ambivalent student I was constantly questioning what direction to take and what career path I will ultimately end up on. Herbie always eased my qualms, as well as many other students past and present, about our fears. He continuously reminded me to not let anyone else influence my career or academic decisions and that he would do anything to help me end up where I am ultimately meant to be. From being in tears in his office over pre-finals stress and attempting to find a job, to congratulatory celebrations upon the most menial of accomplishments, through the good times and more difficult ones, Herbie was always there.
When Herbie’s wife, Ruth, was diagnosed with cancer last year and ultimately passed away a few months later, it was truly devastating. I had never seen someone who loved, respected and held his or her significant other on such a high pedestal. The outpour of support he received during that difficult time from students, faculty and friends exemplified how the Hofstra community, and beyond, were touched in a meaningful way by Herbie. When he hurt, we all did. Even during that difficult period in his life, he showed such strength and grace that we could all only hope to possess in not only our darkest days, but every day.
What I will selfishly miss the most about Herbie is his altruistic guidance and humor. I will always pause in a moment of self-doubt when I realize I cannot send him an email to have him respond in a way that will make me laugh. On the flip side, when I achieve a goal, even seemingly trivial, I will no longer have a text message from Herbie being the first person to congratulate me and boast of my achievements even when I am too embarrassed. I know for certain many students and friends of Herbie’s feel the same way. Maya Angelou said it best:
In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.
Herbie DiFonzo displayed these characteristics daily. He was the most caring, knowledgeable and empathetic mentor a student or friend could ever hope for. Knowing Herbie has been reunited with his loving wife Ruth is the only solace that comes from his passing. He will be endlessly missed, but all of us in the Hofstra community, Family Court Review and AFCC were lucky enough to have had Herbie come into and touch our lives.
This tribute, originally published in Volume 56, Issue 1 of the Family Court Review, has been reprinted by permission of the Family Court Review, Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFFC) and Wiley-Blackwell.