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In praise of a mentor

In praise of a mentor

November 1, 2016 at 12:00am


Clayton Solomon ’05

An assistant U.S. attorney recalls the friendship of a pivotal professor.

—By Clayton Solomon ’05

Everyone warned me that Professor Stack’s undergraduate courses would be brutal. His hardcover textbook was over a thousand pages. His “case method” homework was relentless. His Socratic teaching style, combined with his heavy New England accent, was the stuff of poli-sci legend. His grading scale had crushed the dreams of many aspiring honors students. In the end, Constitutional Law I and II were among my lowest grades at FIU, rattled my self-confidence and resulted in many sleepless nights. They are also among the best courses I have ever taken.

Almost 14 year later, John remains my most enthusiastic cheerleader and closest mentor. He has coached me through almost every major professional decision and has written countless letters of recommendation on my behalf.

Our friendship developed outside of the classroom, mostly in the evening, when I would seek his counsel on all kinds of personal dilemmas. Early in my tenure as the student member of FIU’s Board of Trustees, the board held a vote on whether to raise undergraduate tuition to account for declining state funding (times haven’t changed). The resolution was going to pass overwhelmingly regardless of how I voted, so I had to decide whether it was better to be pragmatic and vote with the rest of the board, or to vote with my conscience and as most students would have wanted me to—against the increase. John remarked, “If your vote is an ornament, then hang it on the right tree!” Not only is his advice always sound, but he usually delivers it with flair. I was the lone vote against the motion.

By May of my senior year, I had yet to be admitted to any of the dozen or so law schools to which I had applied and felt down on my luck. John sat with me outside the DM building until well after dark, strategizing with me and reminding me how much I already had accomplished. I wasn’t certain whether I’d ever become a lawyer, but I left assured that everything would work out fine one way or another. I hope I’ll be able to instill that kind of confidence in the students and young lawyers that I mentor.

When I applied for a federal clerkship with U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga—one of FIU’s most accomplished graduates and, not coincidentally, also one of John’s former students—John recommended me for the highly competitive position, but I had a logistics problem: I was studying in Australia at the time (on a scholarship for which John had written one of my letters of support) and I couldn’t interview with the judge in person. I suggested to John that I interview by telephone or videoconference, but he thought the interview was too important to do remotely. He and another FIU colleague offered to personally pay for my flight back to Miami. I was floored by the gesture but declined.

Like so many students who ignored their better judgment and took his classes, I am a better lawyer and person on account of his teaching and     friendship.  


Clayton P. Solomon ’05 is an assistant United States attorney in Brooklyn, New York. From 2003-2004, he served as SGA President of what is today the Modesto A. Maidique Campus and as the student member of both the FIU Board of Trustees and the State University System Board of Governors. A graduate of the University of Maryland law school, he is a member of the advisory board of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, of which his former mentor, John Stack, is now dean.