"Harry's Last Lecture"
A poignant letter in The Stanford Daily sparked the tradition.
Harry Rathbun, BA '16, ENG '20, LLB '29, a Stanford Law School professor in the 1930s through the 1950s, was reading the school paper one day and was struck by a letter written by a graduating student. The student wrote that he feared venturing into a world he didn't quite understand. Professor Rathbun later recalled, "I had to tell those kids that the meaning of life was up to them, that no teacher and no school and nobody else could hand it to them like a diploma."
With that, he decided to devote the last lecture of his business law class that spring term to a discussion on the meaning of life. An annual tradition was born and over the next three decades "Harry's Last Lecture" grew so popular that it had to be held in Memorial Auditorium to handle the crowds which turned up to hear it. When Professor Rathbun retired from teaching in 1959, so did the annual lecture, until it was revived in 2008 with the inaugural lecture by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Other Rathbun Visiting Fellows have included The Honorable George Shultz, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Marian Wright Edelman.
Thanks to a significant gift to the Office for Religious Life by the Foundation for Global Community, the lecture has returned to inspire current generations of Stanford students. The fund was named the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life and supports activities intended to encourage self-reflection and moral inquiry. The Rathbun Visiting Fellow program is its centerpiece.
"Gift to Religious Life endows new fund,"
Stanford Report, January 23, 2007