John Gardner at Home

Memories from Malcolm Thorburn

Dear Jenny,

I’m a law professor at the University of Toronto. I’ve known John here and there, off and on, for almost twenty years. He has touched my life and that of my whole family in myriad small ways that I felt ought to be put in writing. He is an intellectual hero of mine, of course, but he is also one of the kindest, most thoughtful, courageous and other-regarding people I have ever had the pleasure to have known. I wish him - and your whole family - only good things in this hard time.

In the spirit of “face the music and dance,” I have put down a few recollections of some of the ways John has touched our lives.

All the best,

Malcolm (Thorburn)


Dear John,

You’ve asked that we focus on the positive and on the value of all that is wonderful in this life. In yours, from what I’ve seen of it, there has been so much that is wonderful. In little ways, here and there, you’ve really touched my life and Larissa’s – and even those of our children! – always for the better. In the positive spirit of “facing the music and dancing,” here are a few reminiscences we have of you.

Long before I met you, I was a great fan of your writing style, your thinking, your way of engaging with ideas. Of course, being a Toronto guy, I disagreed with more of your ideas than I agreed with, but I was enthused and stimulated by them all. I came up to Yale to visit fellow graduate students back in 2003 or thereabouts and I wrote to you, asking to chat about your work on justification defences in criminal law. I was thrilled that you took time to work through your views and my own embryonic thoughts on the topic with me. I was glad to have met you and to have worked out a few puzzled in my head, but I didn’t think I’d get a chance to hear from you again soon.

A couple of years later, my career took a positive turn when my first major article was accepted for publication at the Yale Law Journal. For me, this was a huge deal. I was a pre-tenure professor at a small regional school in Canada. Getting published there changed things quite a lot for me. I later found out that the main reason it was published was on the recommendation of... John Gardner! Obviously, you disagreed with most of it, but you were gracious enough to see that it was still worth thinking about. True to your principles, of course, you set out all your disagreements with my position in an extensive essay you published the next year.

Not long after this, I remember you writing powerful letters to Paul Robinson, the editor of a new book on criminal law theory, insisting that my view on justifications should get pride of place. I remember this especially because you were telling the editor to put his own piece aside to make room for mine. I was really touched and flattered that you put so much energy into helping someone you barely knew and whose work you disagreed with profoundly. But you believed that my position had merit, I guess, so you were willing to fight to help me find a bigger audience.

Not long after that, I was presenting a new paper at a conference for the “Philosophical Foundations of Criminal Law” book, held at Rutgers Law School. Everyone there, it seemed, was a well-connected member of the criminal law theory world and they all seemed to know each other well. At the conference dinner, I was very touched that you came up to me — very deliberately, it seemed to me — and started chatting. We took a table together, where you gave me all your attention. Once again, I was hugely touched with how gracious you were – and so easily, too, with any drama or drawing attention to it.

I’m not sure if you remember your visit to Queen’s Law School many years back – was it 2009, I think? – to give a series of talks. The visit took place over a series of miserably cold Canadian winter days. You gave two wonderful, stimulating, fun talks (one was the introduction to the new edition of “Punishment and Responsibility”) and you took endless time to talk with faculty and students while you were with us. But what I still remember most from that visit is my own nervousness. I was to drive you home from a dinner. In Canada, at that time of the year, the windscreen of the car regularly gets covered in frost, inside and out. In my nervousness, I felt like I couldn’t keep you waiting so instead of taking the time actually to scrape the windscreen clear, I just started to drive. You helpfully noted that it was impossible to see anything though the glass since it was covered in two a thick layer of frost and immediately set about scraping the windscreen so that I could see. Unflappable and gracious, as always.

A few years later, Larissa and I were looking to arrange a sabbatical visit to Oxford. Again, you came to the rescue. Not only did you take time to write letters of recommendation for me to various colleges and institutes at Oxford. You took it upon yourself to arrange things so that things would work out best for both Larissa and me. (I recall quite a few skype calls where we talked over all sorts of details for our visit.) When we arrived in Oxford, you were very gracious. We came to your rooms at Univ every second Tuesday for the “Tuesday group” meetings. Discussion was always lively and fun and lunch was always provided – by you. I was amazed when I found out that it was you who took the time to make all the lunches.

Apparently, though, no task was too small for you. This included little things – like cycling to our little rental house on Polstead Road to deliver our son’s bike helmet that we had left behind at college. This continued when Larissa and our son, Julian visited Oxford. And you – of course! – took the time to show them around All Souls, to discuss the novels of Rick Riordan and to take them to dinner at your favourite pub.

Not long after their visit to Oxford, you came to our house in Toronto for dinner – it was just last year. It was a great evening – you were full of wonderful stories about your dad, your brother, and your many adventures. But what really made an impression on our family was the time you took to chat with our daughter, Clara (who was seven at the time) about her favourite author (who also happens to be a fellow at All Souls – Kate Rundell). Your interest was so genuine and your kindness was so open and overt that Clara remembers it well – and remembers you very fondly just from the one encounter.

I won’t go on. I’m sure others have richer, more exciting stories to tell. But even from where I sit, far away in Canada, I hope you know that you’ve made all our lives richer and happier.