By the time that I first met Professor Oberst, much of his storied career as a civil rights advocate was behind him. I would not be until later years that I would come to know the depth of his dedication and courage, and would appreciate even more the time that I was given to learn the law from him.
Stories of his absent-mindedness preceded him, and as I, in my middle age, find myself in similar circumstances I appreciate them all the more. The legendary tie draped over his shoulder, either from a windblown walk back from lunch at Alfalfa's or as protection against soup stains while there, punctuated lectures on constitutional rights and heightened the image of a man who was so lost in the wonder of the protections of the constitution against the tyranny of the majority, and in the enjoyment of such things, that there was scarce time to worry about such minor details.
His lectures were interspersed with reflections both wry and insightful, and I still often recall, during those situations where a head-on approach to a problem doesn't seem to work, his reflection on the strategic use of federal funds to "encourage" changes in state policies: "You can lead a horse to water and you can't make him drink, but you can make him darn sorry he didn't when he had the chance!"
In the late 1970's and early 1980's, much of the student activism and belief in the importance of service within the legal profession had declined among the student population. Professor Oberst remained a constant source of encouragement to law students to think more broadly of the role of the lawyer and the importance of public service. Over the course of my twenty-two years of work with legal services and with non-profit environmental advocacy, when I encountered Professor Oberst I never ceased to be amazed that he had kept up with my work, and still had a kind word of encouragement.
Marian Wright Edelman, in her reflections on a career of advocacy on behalf of children, penned this prayer:
Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender, Lord, help me not to be a whiner but a worker, Lord, help me not to be a getter but a giver, Lord, help me not to be a hindrance but a help, Lord, help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.
Professor Oberst was a tender, a worker, a giver, a help, and a catalyst for good. His spirit resonates in the work of all of us who took the tools we were given in school and applied them to make a society a bit more just, more fair, more caring. On our best days, we can hope to show the sort of courage he did in standing up for civil liberties in an environment that little tolerated or appreciated the work. On our best days, we can but strive to "walk the walk" the way that he did in tutoring John Hatch, and creating change one person at a time. And on those days, we can reflect on his life and smile.
Tom FitzGerald, Director Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. April 26, 2002