In Remembrance.

In Remembrance

Ron Carne
Lila Gosch
Jessica Holland
Jim Saxe
Larry Thatcher

Charles James Ogletree Jr.

December 31, 1952–August 4, 2023
by Joseph P. Kahn, The Boston Globe
Charles Ogletree
Photo by Lane Turner, The Boston Globe

Charles Ogletree, an internationally renowned law professor and legal theorist who mentored Harvard Law School students Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, the future first lady, counseled Anita Hill during her historic appearance before a Senate Judiciary Committee, and helped draft a post-apartheid constitution for South Africa, died Friday morning in his Odenton, Md., home at age 70.

In 2016, Mr. Ogletree announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease

“Just as I have fought and advocated for civil rights and justice for America’s communities of color over the course of decades,” he said in a published statement, “I will join the efforts of others raising awareness about the illness and fight for a cure.”

In a subsequent Globe interview, Barack Obama spoke of Mr. Ogletree’s influence on both himself and his wife, saying they were “just two of the many people he has helped, taught, supported, advised, and encouraged throughout his life.”

In a statement Friday evening, Mr. Ogletree’s family said that “even though Alzheimer’s robbed him of the extraordinary gifts that made him exceptional in his career, he remained courageous, strong, and resilient throughout his journey. He continued to bring immense joy to our family.”

A brilliant criminal defender with a famously dogged work ethic, Mr. Ogletree was influential well beyond the classroom and courthouse

A sought-after media analyst, Ogletree predicted O.J. Simpson’s acquittal while covering the murder trial for NBC. He lectured widely on such issues as the death penalty and paying reparations to descendants of African slaves, wrote numerous books and articles, and, in the late-1980s, served as a moderator on the acclaimed public television series “Ethics in America.” In 2011, he delivered a three-part lecture series at Harvard titled “Understanding Obama,” an in-depth look at the life of the 44th president.

“Over the years, Michelle and I have always been able to count on Charles’s support, often when we needed it the most,” Obama said in a statement released Saturday. “And after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he got to work spreading awareness — especially among people of color. He wanted to be a spokesperson for the disease, telling people not to be afraid.”

When not teaching or writing, Mr. Ogletree could often be found in the courtroom defending a variety of clients, some famous, others not. Besides Hill, other well-known clients included crime boss John Gotti, former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, and rap artist Tupac Shakur.

Harvard provided his primary base of operations, though. He began teaching there in 1986 and held the Jesse Climenko Professorship. He put into practice his belief in grounding students in real-life experience, a nontraditional approach with which his more conservative faculty colleagues at times took issue.

The approach included establishing the Criminal Justice Institute, a training ground for law students groomed to represent indigent defendants in Roxbury District Court. Obama was among his prized trainees.

Continuing a lifelong commitment to civil rights, in 2005 he launched the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. The institute brings together scholars, researchers, and policy experts to explore complex issues surrounding race and social justice.

At the same time, he advocated for more women and professors of color to be hired, threatening to quit if the faculty did not become more diverse. Mr. Ogletree’s principled stand made a deep impression on his students and colleagues, for whom he became a moral compass and intellectual lodestar.

“I want to teach students how we can do well and do good,” Mr. Ogletree told the Globe in 1995, “to tell students that a call to public service is a good thing, that they can be public servants and not suffer” financially.

The eldest of six children, Charles James Ogletree Jr. was born on Dec. 31, 1952, in Merced, Calif., where he spent much of his childhood. His father was an itinerant farmhand, and the family struggled financially. In his youth, Charles picked fruit and delivered newspapers to earn extra money.

In Merced, railroad tracks separated its mostly white neighborhoods and businesses from where its Black and Hispanic citizens lived.

Young Charles watched the trains rumbling by and dreamed of a life beyond Merced. When a school guidance counselor suggested he apply to Stanford University, his future brightened.

He excelled in college academically while serving as student body co-president, working for a Black-oriented student newspaper, and leading a student organization supporting Black activist Angela Davis during her trial on conspiracy, murder, and kidnapping charges. (She was eventually acquitted.)

Mr. Ogletree remained at Stanford to earn a master’s degree in political science in 1975. That same year, he married fellow student Pamela Barnes.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Ogletree leaves two children, Charles III of Tallahassee, an accountant, and Rashida Ogletree-George, a Justice Department attorney in Washington, D.C.; four siblings, Richard, Rosemarie Jacobs, Robert, and Taalia Hasan; and four grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.

When he arrived as a student at Harvard Law in 1975, Boston was grappling with court-ordered school busing and other racially divisive issues. He found Harvard to be “dark, cold, distant, formal — the opposite of Stanford,” as he later put it, and Greater Boston not much more welcoming.

The classroom was another matter. There his intelligence and tenacity impressed such professors as Derrick Bell and James Vorenberg, who became lifelong friends and mentors.

After earning his law degree, Mr. Ogletree spent six years working for the Public Defenders Service in Washington, D.C., where he rose through the ranks to become deputy director while cementing his reputation as a formidable criminal defender.

Throughout his career, Mr. Ogletree wrote extensively on race relations, legal theory, and related topics, including the ground-breaking Brown v. Board of Education ruling and police misconduct in the Rodney King beating. Other books included “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America.”

After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he and Mr. Ogletree struck up a friendship. In the mid-’90s, the Harvard professor began work on a new constitution for South Africa, one that enshrined equal protection under the law for Blacks and whites. It was adopted in 1997.

Mr. Ogletree’s commitment to long-form racial justice was reflected in his decision, in 2003, to represent survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riots. During the riots, hundreds of local black citizens were attacked by white mobs. Many saw their homes and businesses burned to the ground.

His co-counsel on the case was his friend Johnnie Cochran, who had defended Simpson. Ultimately the pair failed to win financial restitution for their clients, the courts holding that too much time had passed since the riots for their claims to have merit.

The following year, in a rare blot on his professional reputation, Mr. Ogletree admitted to lifting “practically verbatim” several paragraphs from another author in composing his book about the Brown case. The plagiarism was unintentional, he maintained, resulting from notes taken by research assistants being inserted into his manuscript without proper review or attribution.

Harvard investigated the charges and issued a reprimand. “It was a crushing experience,” he admitted.

After Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy died in 2009, Mr. Ogletree was among those considered to replace him temporarily, until a special election could be held. Ultimately, he was passed over in favor of Paul Kirk.

Among Mr. Ogletree’s great passions was fishing, although one outing nearly ended in tragedy. In August 1999, he joined a fishing trip off Martha’s Vineyard. Forty-five miles from land, their boat lost power. A storm blew in, and the boat nearly capsized in 20-foot seas.

Many frantic hours later, the group was rescued by a Coast Guard vessel — but not before they faced the prospect of being cast overboard into shark-infested waters. Or so they feared, Mr. Ogletree having hooked a large shark earlier in the day.

Over the decades Mr. Ogletree kept close ties to Stanford, his alma mater, where he served on the Board of Trustees. His interest in equal access to education extended to his chairmanship of the BellXcel (originally BELL) Foundation, which supports minority youth in Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., and to cofounding the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge, which focuses on STEM education for grades K-6.

When Mr. Ogletree was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he told his wife, Pam, “I want to focus on what I have, not on what I’m losing, or on what I had.”

His announcement that he had the disease triggered an outpouring of empathy. In October 2017, hundreds of friends, colleagues, and former students gathered at Harvard to honor the man they called Tree. He received a lengthy ovation, along with news that friends had endowed a law school professorship in his name.

Professor Hill recalled Mr. Ogletree’s courage in agreeing to advise her during hearings on Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination. Mr. Ogletree, then up for tenure at Harvard, was putting his teaching career at risk, she noted, given the uproar over her sexual harassment charges against Thomas.

“I know of no one who is more generous, more principled, more unpretentious, and more intelligent than Charles Ogletree,” Hill said at the Harvard event honoring him.

Mr. Ogletree vowed to work to bolster attention on the disease, By doing so, he was following a well-worn script in his life.

“In sharing his story and putting a spotlight on this disease,” former president Obama said, “he is continuing a lifelong effort to help others.”

The disease would steal much of what he had loved: his reading and writing, great debates and discussions, his fishing. Yet, Pam Ogletree said in 2019, she continued to focus on what they still had together — telling him stories of their past, listening to his favorite music, taking long walks in almost any weather.

In many ways, she told the Globe’s Jenna Russell, her husband’s ordeal had deepened their love for one another. She added, “I’m trying to hold onto him as long as I can.”

Charles Ogletree with Barach Obama at a Harvard Law School Reunion

Charles Ogletree, Harvard Law professor who mentored the Obamas, dies at 70, by Joseph P. Kahn, The Boston Globe, August 4, 2023.

Obama recalls the lasting influence of Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, Bryan Marquard, The Boston Globe, August 5, 2023.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., 70, Dies; at Harvard Law, a Voice for Equal Justice, by Clay Risen, The New York Times, August 7, 2023 Link