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George W. Kirchwey

Professor of Law, Columbia University

Centurion, 1899–1942

Full Name George Washington Kirchwey

Born 3 July 1855 in Detroit, Michigan

Died 3 March 1942 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York

Proposed by William A. Keener and Henry W. Taft

Elected 4 November 1899 at age forty-four

Archivist’s Note: Father of (nonmember) Freda Kirchwey

Proposer of:

Century Memorial

George W. Kirchwey was of the leaven that leavened the whole lump of the too complacent society of his day. He was active in reform politics in the city and state at a time when many more than practical politicians looked on reformers as sappers of the foundations of society. He was active among those progressive law professors who brought about the reform in law-teaching celebrated as the case method, and he took a large part in the campaign which has led in our day to such improvement in the prison and parole system and the treatment of convicted persons.

He was active not only with tongue and pen in advocating reforms; he took his share of responsibility in putting them into practice. He was a professor of law in Columbia University Law School from 1891 to 1916 and was Dean for a number of years. He is especially well-known for his part in the movement, headed by Thomas Mott Osborne, to have the stress in our penal system laid on the reform of the individual rather than upon punishment of the convict. He showed that he was no library reformer when he accepted an appointment as Warden of Sing Sing, where he labored with all the zeal that was in him to continue in effect and to better the innovations which Mr. Osborne had instituted. On leaving his prison post, he went back to teaching as head of the department of criminology of the New York School of Social Work.

His learning and his experience did not weigh down his conversation. They helped to give substance to his wit and originality as a teacher. His wit made his classes interesting as his learning made them instructive. At one time he was asked to dismiss his class so that they could attend a lecture by a distinguished visitor. He said: “I dismiss this class and urge you to hear this lecturer. Myself, like the poor, you have always with you; him, this may be your last clear chance to see.” In one class Dean Kirchwey was expounding a doctrine in which the conclusions depended on very subtle reasoning. Toward the end of the hour one of the students asked if there was not any rule or talisman by which the students could readily distinguish the situations. He said: “What we want is a sign.” At that moment the bell rang for the end of the hour and Dean Kirchwey, quick as a flash, said: “A wicked and adulterous generation asketh for a sign, and lo a sign is given!”

After Dean Kirchwey had resigned from the Law School, had served as Warden of Sing Sing and had resigned from that position, he said he never knew when meeting young men on the street whether to ask them when they were graduated or to ask when they were released. He finally compromised by asking such individuals: “When did you get out?” He found one of his chief pleasures in the society of his fellows, in sharing the give and take of talk. He was a clubman in that sense of the word which prevails in the Century. Behind his social contacts and behind his public activity was his feeling for individuals. It would suit him best to have it said of him that, like Abou Ben Adhem, he would ask of the Recording Angel to put him down as one “who loves his fellow men”; and those Centurions who had the pleasure of his company will join in the hope of the poet in regard to the Arabian sage, “may his tribe increase.”

Geoffrey Parsons
1942 Century Memorials