Anne and G. Michael Fenner have been married 50 years. They celebrate that and his retirement from Creighton University School of Law this summer. Fenner holds the Endowed Professorship, James L. Koley Professor of Constitutional Law. (Photo by Lorraine Boyd)
Robert M. Spire Public Service Award
Fenner’s Legacy Spans Generations in Legal Community
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The legal profession owes a debt of gratitude to Creighton University Law Professor G. Michael Fenner.
Fenner helped preserve the Nebraska State Bar Association in the immediate aftermath of its court-mandated transition to a voluntary membership. Fenner has facilitated visits by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to teach law seminars at Creighton for more than two decades. On a personal level, Fenner has mentored, encouraged and supported countless law students and young attorneys as they began their careers.
“Professor Fenner holds a special place in the hearts of many attorneys in Omaha,” said Dave Sommers, executive director of the Omaha Bar Association and one of Fenner’s many, many former students in the community.
Fenner is being presented the Robert M. Spire Public Service Award at the Omaha Bar Association’s Law Day luncheon. The award, which has been presented annually since 1986, recognizes an attorney or attorney organization that has made a long-term commitment to significantly enhancing the public’s knowledge of the law for reasons that aren’t focused on pecuniary gain.
Michael J. Kelly, interim dean of the Creighton School of Law, said Fenner will be “missed beyond measure” after he retires this spring from his endowed post as the James L. Koley Professor of Constitutional Law.
“He is such an integral part of who we are as a law school,” Kelly said. “I simply can’t imagine Creighton Law School without Mike Fenner.”
“I’ve loved this job since I showed up 47 years ago,” Fenner told The Daily Record, reflecting on his career since joining Creighton’s faculty in 1972. “I’ve had a lot of jobs, from working in warehouses and driving trucks to working in an ice cream freezer and a grocery store, and as a trial attorney at the United States Department of Justice, and I’ve loved every job I’ve had, but I knew that every job I’d had until this one wasn’t a career. When I landed this job as a law professor, I knew this was it.”
Fenner began his legal career as a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School – “not Harvard or Yale,” he notes – and landed a job as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. Two years later, he was named to a team of five lawyers to handle cases stemming from President Richard Nixon’s wage-price freeze, the first time since World War II that the U.S. had enacted such controls to counter inflation.
Fenner said he learned a lot from that experience, including that you don’t have to have an Ivy League background to do important work. One day on the job, he also got a lesson on personal grooming from FBI Director J. Edgard Hoover, who saw Fenner and remarked, “That young man needs to get a haircut.”
That advice never really stuck. He once sported a ponytail at Creighton, and he was often referred to as the “rock star professor” at the school.
“He still hasn’t gotten a proper haircut,” Kelly noted.
Fenner has continued a family legacy of practicing law. He is the oldest of three brothers; his youngest brother was head legal counsel for a federal agency and his other brother is a federal judge in Missouri. Fenner’s children are both lawyers, too.
Fenner and his wife Anne are planning to spend more time with family, starting by spending the summer with their children and grandchildren in the Italian countryside.
But retirement won’t see Fenner leaving the practice of law altogether. He will maintain an office at McGill, Gotsdiner, Workman & Lepp PC LLO, located near 114th Street and West Dodge Road. Fenner has been of counsel with the firm, which specializes in representing closely held businesses and their owners, since its inception in 1975.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Rossiter Jr. said he has counted Fenner among his friends since his first year at the Creighton University School of Law in 1978.
“Mike is dedicated to, and an advocate for, his students, both during and after law school,” Rossiter said. “He will be missed at the law school, but we are happy he will be staying in Omaha.”
J. Scott Paul, the current president of the Nebraska State Bar Association, agreed.
“Mike’s devotion to Creighton, his students and the Nebraska Bar is well known and greatly appreciated by all,” Paul said.
Fenner’s lasting impression on the Nebraska Bar goes beyond that of being a past president, although he is the only academic to hold that position in the state bar’s history.
During Fenner’s tenure, the Nebraska Supreme Court handed down a per curiam opinion finding that lawyers shouldn’t be required to pay for Nebraska Bar activities and programs that go beyond regulating the profession. That 2013 order threatened to end the association’s lobbying efforts, its outreach to help lawyers struggling with mental illnenss and substance abuse and other programs designed to enhance the legal profession.
Fenner steered the organization through the initial shock and helped remind some members of the value of remaining dues-paying members. He established committees to respond to the change, and the Nebraska Bar is thriving today in no small part due to the leadership he displayed in the wake of the decision.
“I called someone who told me he had made up his mind that he was not going to join the voluntary bar,” Fenner recalled. Eventually, though, the lawyer told the professor, “I should have known better than to argue with someone who knows the facts better than I. I’m sending in my check today!”
Fenner said he called up Liz Neeley, who recently had taken the reins as the association’s executive director, and told her, “I’m winning ’em back, one at a time.”
Neeley said a person’s true character shows through during difficult times.
“Fenner lead the NSBA through an unexpected and challenging transition from a mandatory to a voluntary bar, and he did so with civility, intelligence and humor,” she said.
Those personal touches – the conversations, hand-written notes and well-timed quips – are what many will remember about Fenner’s legendary career.
“Fenner excelled in his hand-written notes of encouragement,” observed Crieghton Law Professor R. Collin Mangrum. “His notes touched the hearts of others because he wrote to them in their hour of need.”
The same could be said of Fenner’s response to the legal profession in the State Bar Association’s hour of need or the opportunities he’s helped law students land after graduation. Fenner’s influence in the legal profession will be felt for generations longer, no matter where – or whether – he shows up for work in the morning.