by Jeffrey Stanley
As a lawyer he served as counsel to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was special counsel to the Department of the Army's investigation into the My Lai Massacre, and chaired the American Bar Association's Task Force on Law Schools Report, widely known as the MacCrate Report, which strongly called for an overhaul of the way law is taught in the United States. In 1987 he also convinced a Little Rock, AR lawyer named Hillary Clinton to chair the first ever ABA Commission on Women and the Profession. He did all of this while a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell in lower Manhattan, a firm he joined in 1948, and where at age 87 Robert MacCrate '39
still comes in to work every day from his Long Island home.
"I can see where my grandfather had his first job in America, where I had my first position in the Navy, and where my mother was born," Bob said with a smile as he looked out the 24th floor window of his office toward the Brooklyn Navy Yard. "And if squint I can see where I was born," he added as he tried to see Greenpoint.
Bob's grandfather was a ship's blacksmith who came to the US from Scotland in 1883 looking for work. Five years later in 1888 he brought over his two sons, aged 6 and 8, the eldest being Bob's future father, John. "My father's story was truly remarkable," he said. "He grew up in Greenpoint and attended public school. In eighth grade his family wanted him to drop out and work in a factory but his teacher came to the house and convinced his parents that he should go on to high school." The young man's parents assented and he indeed attended high school, then went on to Harvard Law School on scholarship. Times were tough and this immigrant's son had to leave Harvard after five weeks to return to Greenpoint and help support his family. Not one to give up on his dreams he attended New York University Law School at night while working by day as a stenographer for a prestigious law firm. He finally opened a firm of his own in a Greenpoint storefront, sharing the space with a horse livery. He went on to win a bipartisan election to the US Congress in 1918 for one term, then he was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn where he remained until his retirement in 1958.
"And there is how I came to Brooklyn Friends," said Bob. "I think the fact that it was a Friends school lay at the center of it. My parents believed in respect for others and the importance of the community to each of us," he said, wryly adding, "that and the fact that it was two blocks from the courthouse where my dad had his chambers."
Bob, or Robin as he was known then, entered kindergarten in 1927. His older brother John had been going to school on Long Island in Sea Cliff, and had transferred to BFS in 1926. "Sea Cliff had started as a Methodist camp," he said. "On my maternal side are five generations of Methodist ministers."
In second grade his father took the family with him to Washington, DC to attend the inauguration of Herbert Hoover as President. "I wrote an account of my trip that was part of my second grade assignments," Bob said.
In the fall of 1929 just as Bob was about to enter third grade a tragedy struck the family. While driving on Long Island en route to spend a few days at a rented cottage they had a head-on collision with an oncoming car which had veered into their lane. His father and brother were in the front seat and received multiple lacerations. Young Robin, ensconced in the bedding in the back seat, miraculously received no injuries, but his mother sustained serious head injuries which would leave her paralyzed and bedridden for years to come.
"My friendships with my classmates were important," Bob said of that troubled period. "As early as the first week of October I received penciled notes from them." A note from Mitsu Takami read Dear Robert, We miss you. We are having a good time. We are studying about boats. Love, Mitsu. "That gives you an idea of the relationships at Brooklyn Friends." His friend Mitsu attended the school from kindergarten through senior year, the same as him. "Her father was a doctor in Brooklyn. And her brother was drafted into the Japanese army." After his mother's accident, teachers also became more a part of the MacCrates' lives, to the point that the family even attended the wedding of his 1st grade teacher Mrs. Hatch in Vermont.
Bob also recalled a fifth grade study of medieval history and classmate Henry Field. "We built a castle with a moat and I remember Henry taking a leading role in that."
Then there was Friends Field, "a centerpiece of so much." In sixth grade during the presidential election year of 1936 the school held a May Day pageant with the election as its theme. "I was President Prosperity Pinchgraft," he said. " Beverly Stephanidis was Mrs. Pinchgraft and we strutted around the field."
Principal S. Archibald Smith taught a seventh grade course in study methods in which Bob memorized a Ruskin poem that he still can recite to this day. "Same thing in Latin. My Latin teacher Mrs. Melvin was really something. In ninth grade we studied Cicero and I memorized under her tutelage his oration against Cataline." It wasn't all a bed of roses though. "I had no such good luck with French," he admitted, because teacher Maude Campbell struck terror in his heart whenever she walked into the room. "She would announce, 'une dicté!' and we were then to transcribe from her dictation."
By his senior year Bob had lettered in football, captained the baseball team, received honors in basketball, was business manager of the school newspaper The Life, editor of the yearbook, and performed in the senior play. A month after graduation Bob's brother, 6 years his senior, married BFS classmate Jane Scott. Two months later Bob was off to Haverford College.
"Warren Anderson in the class ahead of me went, and when he heard I was coming down he arranged in some way that I was to be his roommate because he and a German refugee, Wolfgang Franzen, had two rooms and they needed a third roommate in order to keep the rooms," he said with a grin. Warren was a Greek major. To obtain a BA Bob would need to meet the school's language requirement. "Still being terrified of French, I took Greek," he said, knowing he'd have a live-in Greek tutor.
Attendance at Quaker Meeting was compulsory. at Haverford. "At that time we had the leaders of Quakerism with us," said Bob, "Rufus Jones and William Wistar Comfort, and they were truly inspirational." He also recalled a writer visiting his political philosophy class and presenting the college library with an original copy of 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. "To have that in your hands was quite a stunning thing," said the future lawyer, "and all of that against the ministerial background in my family really did lend a direction to one's aspirations in life."
Three weeks after graduating Haverford in 1943 he had to report for duty with the US Navy, entering the supply corps school being conducted at Harvard University. He was then ordered to sea duty in the Pacific as a disbursing officer on the battleship USS Pennsylvania. "There I was in operations in the Marshalls, the Mariannas, the Philippines, Palau. The ship fired more rounds than any ship in the history of the US Navy," he said. Bob was then ordered back to the supply corps school, this time as a teacher. Three weeks later he met the woman he would marry a year later, Constance Trapp. "She graded papers at the business school at a time when a woman couldn't matriculate at Harvard," he explained. Instead, "she and the GI bill put me through Harvard." They raised three children; a girl and two boys.
Bob joined the law firm of Cromwell & Sullivan in 1948. His first client, among the ones he cut his teeth on, was the Bata Shoe Company of Zlin, Czechoslovakia. Throughout his stellar legal career Bob remained that company's counsel until last month when the head of the company died at the age of 93.
In recalling his career a particularly proud memory stands out. It occurred while he was chairing the ABA Task Force on Law Schools Report. "At the last meeting before we put this 360 page piece to bed I had the dean of UCLA and a professor from South Carolina who couldn't agree on anything, going back and forth," he said. Finally committee colleague Rosalie E. Wahl, a chief justice of Minnesota's Supreme Court whom Robert knew to be a lifelong Quaker, raised her hand in exasperation and requested a vote.
And I said, "Rosalie, for shame," Bob recounted. "You as a birthright Quaker have always reached consensus, and now you want a vote at our final meeting?" She put her hand down, and by the end of the day the committee had reached consensus.
"I had the best of all worlds," he said. "I've just been terribly fortunate as to how all of these things have come together."