A Dean and His Dog

There was no one quite like Samuel Fox Mordecai, the first leader of the law school.
December 11, 2014

One hundred and ten years ago, Samuel Fox Mordecai was named the first dean of Trinity Law School. Until his death in 1927, he earned a reputation as a brilliant scholar, but also as an eccentric: a man whose language was blushingly colorful and whose love of animals— especially dogs—made him unforgettable.

Mordecai was born in 1852. The descendant of one of the first Jewish immigrants to North Carolina (the Mordecai House in Raleigh is a family home), he was raised Episcopalian and attended the University of Virginia. He was admitted to the bar in 1875 and practiced law in Raleigh from 1875 to 1904, while also raising nine children with his wife, Bettie Grimes Mordecai. In 1904, after a successful stint as a lecturer at Wake Forest, Mordecai moved with his family to Durham to become the dean of the nascent law school.

Mordecai was astonishingly well read, fluent in numerous languages, and a prolific writer. Many law students had never encountered a figure quite like him. Years later, noted legal scholar Sidney S. Alderman wrote, “His students will unanimously agree that he was the greatest natural teacher under whose influence they have ever come. He had a trenchant quality, an inexorably cutting quality, of mind. It slashed through all superficies, all pedantic veneer, all sophomoric vapidity, all the accumulated crust of formalism, tradition, preconceived ideas, and cant.” He could be bracingly sarcastic. P.H. Crawford, a student of Mordecai’s in 1926, recalled that “on one occasion he told a student, ‘Your knowledge of the law has reached that level of ignorance beyond which there is no possibility of further descent.’ ” Despite the cutting words, students must have noticed a twinkle in his eye, for he was universally remembered as a warm figure.

A visitor to his home noted, “The whole house is unique. A visit to it is an adventure not comparable to anything in the world. At the entrance, one encounters books and strange collections of riding whips, horseshoes, and other odds and ends—books! One continues to find books, from the floor to the ceiling, throughout the house, and where there is not a picture of some kind, there is a stack of books. The wall itself is almost nowhere discernable.” Mordecai’s lavish dinners and love of entertaining made his house, on the northeast corner of Trinity College (today’s East Campus), a hub of activity.

Toward the end of his life, when his health made it difficult to move, Mordecai taught from home, gathering students on the front porch or in the dining room. During these visits, students would encounter some of the family dogs, many of whom were adopted strays: Madame, Whitey, Trixy, and Pompey Ducklegs (both Senior and Junior). Mordecai loved his animals and would scold any students who, crowded into the dining-room “classroom,” might step on a dog’s tail. Crawford remembered hearing a dog scratch at the dining-room door during one lesson. Mordecai asked, in exasperation, “Will one of you sons of bitches please let that gentleman in?”

The best known of the bunch, a dachshund named Pompey Ducklegs Sr., became something of a mascot for the law school. (The name came from the British novel Westward Ho!, in which Pompey Ducklegs is a buffoonish slave character— evidence that, for all his brilliance, Mordecai was still a product of the Jim Crow South.) Pompey usually appeared in class photographs, and multiple pages of the 1921 Chanticleer were devoted to Pompey. A 1926 article in The Durham Morning Herald described “Old Pomp” as “high toned a tyke as ever buried a bone. He is something less than a foot high, and something less than a yard long, or very nearly that. His color is a deep red, and his walk a cross between a turkey strut and a goose waddle. It is much the same as if a huge, long sausage were given legs and a tail and endowed with the ability to trot about. Indeed, his general appearance is not unlike a smooth, longhaired alligator, so low is his running gear.”

The Mordecai dogs, including Pompey, were accustomed to the good life and thought nothing of crawling into bed with overnight guests. Once, daughter Margaret Mordecai Blomquist recalled that, while visiting a neighbor, Pompey fell asleep in the neighbor’s bed. “‘Mr. Mordecai,’ said the alarmed neighbor, ‘you’ll have to call your dog. He’s on my bed.’ Papa jumped right up and shouted, ‘Come here, Pompey! Get out of that bed before you get fleas all over you!’”

Remembered by his children for the “candy parties” before bedtime and by the Trinity and Duke community for his wit and wisdom, Mordecai’s academic legacy is continued today through the Mordecai Scholars program in the law school, which provides full scholarships for students of extraordinary leadership and academic accomplishment. His personality has never quite been duplicated, however. This December 10 marks Pompey Ducklegs’ 101st birthday, and we will raise a glass to extraordinary Mordecai and his extraordinary dog.