Charles R. McDowell is the most beloved professor in the history of the Washington and Lee University School of Law. In recalling Professor McDowell, former students consistently use terms like "warmth," "character," "concern," and even "mother hen." As much a raconteur as a law professor, McDowell was said to be a handsome Kentucky version of Will Rogers. Joining the law faculty in 1927, McDowell taught until just months before his death in July 1968. Commercial law was his speciality and he taught Contracts, Bills and Notes, Corporations, Partnerships, Sales, and Persons. He also taught commercial law at the University of Virginia on several occasions in the 1950's and early 1960's as a visiting professor.
In the classroom, McDowell was known as a "spoon-feeder" who emphasized repetition of basic rules and principals. His teaching was graphic and sometimes dramatic. He would use the blackboard to extensively diagram cases and rules. He would involve his students in theatrical demonstrations of contracts and capture their interests with elaborate folksy tales that drove home his points. This style would seem to have been at odds with the value he placed on legal reasoning and his view of "the law as a seamless web." It was his stated belief, however, that legal reasoning could not be taught, whereas the actual state of the law could learned by all of his students.
Charles Rice McDowell was born in 1895 in Danville, Kentucky and received his A.B. degree in 1915 from that town’s Centre College. He spent the next two years coaching athletic teams in Kentucky colleges. This experience was the basis for his fictional serial The Ringer, which appeared in Argosy Magazine. His coaching career ended when he became a navy flyer in World War I as part of the first class of naval aviators. Following the war, McDowell worked as a reporter before earning his history M.A. degree from Columbia University in 1921. In 1924 he received his LL.B. degree from Yale Law School.
That same year he married Catherine Frazier Feland. They had two sons, Charles McDowell, Jr. and John Feland McDowell. John chose his father’s profession of law, while young Charles pursued his father’s other love, writing, and became a columnist and television news panelist of national renown. Catherine McDowell, in her own right, came to be prominently identified with the Washington and Lee School of Law. Her years as secretary to the law dean were notable for her administrative stewardship and her kindness toward students. She is memorialized in a law scholarship bearing her name.
From 1924 to 1927 McDowell practiced law in Florida, where he had received his aviation training. When the economic bubble of the land boom burst, Dean Vance of the Yale Law School -- and former dean of the Washington and Lee School of Law -- recommended McDowell for a teaching position at W&L. With the exception of World War II naval service and visiting professorships, McDowell taught there for the rest of his life.
Though he published law review articles on commercial law, McDowell the writer is best remembered for his humorous novel "Iron Baby Angel" published in 1954. It was set in his boyhood home of Danville, Kentucky. On his death in 1968, Washington and Lee President and former law faculty colleague, Robert E. R. Huntley, wrote the Board of Trustees, "His teaching methods were entirely unique, and spiced with humor and underpinned by deep insight into the law’s basic concepts and purposes. Generations of students carried away from his classes a kind of wisdom which they are not likely to encounter again but which the are also not likely to forget."