While a law professor at Washington and Lee University from 1951-1956, Milton Colvin taught Agency, Criminal Law and Procedure, Conflicts of Law, Domestic Relations, and Wills and Administration, but International Law was his speciality. Colvin was already seventy-one years old and had just retired from a distinguished career in U.S. government service when he joined the law faculty. When Professor George S. Wolbert was called to active duty at the start of the Korean War, Colvin was hired to fill-in. Dean Clayton Williams worried about Colvin’s age and stated in a letter to Wolbert, "while his work has been very satisfactory this year, I do not feel too comfortable, as a sickness might put him out and cause us serious inconvenience." Though poor health had plagued him off- and-on during his adult life, Professor Colvin proved to be an able and popular member of the W&L law faculty.
Colvin’s teaching method was Socratic, drawing out the important points of the material under consideration by skillful questioning. He was never dogmatic and objected strenuously to producing a law student who had "pressed into him the personality and philosophy of the professor." He had a philosophy of legal education that led him to campaign for a "new ideal" in legal education. In 1934, as a member of the Law School Objectives and Methods round table of the Association of American Law Schools, Colvin called for "a curriculum which is so shaped as to enable young men to see the social side of law," to bring about a "new era of social and economic change in national and international life." The curriculum reforms he espoused were radical. Colvin favored the abolishment of classes with their "casebook recitation system." He did not, however, wish to abolish law schools. "The professor will still be there for daily consultation. He will, in a much more personal way, influence a student to live the good life of use to society rather than by the classroom way."
Colvin’s writing was mostly in the field of international and comparative law. It was his belief, as he stated in his article "Casus Belli," that "certain international law peace doctrines automatically produce war and make armed conflict inevitable under modern conditions." He also wrote extensively about the influences of Roman and civil law on the United States common-law system.
Howard Milton Colvin was born September 7, 1880, in Bourbon , Indiana. Wanderlust led him to homestead in the Oklahoma Territory (where, among a variety of other activities, he drove the U.S. Mail stagecoach), to become a school supervisor in the Philippine Islands, and to travel around the world – all before taking his A.B. degree at the University of Washington in 1910. During his undergraduate days, he lived with his brother, a member of the Seattle Symphony, and paid for his education by teaching the Spanish he had leaned during his travels. He also tutored and offered private classes in Spanish while studying law at Yale University, where he earned his LL.B. degree in 1912. He practiced law in Tulsa, Oklahoma from 1912-1915, before turning to the teaching of law and social sciences. In all, Colvin was on the faculty or staff of eight educational institutions: University of Washington, University of Arizona, City College of El Paso, State University of Montana, Tulane University, Earlham College, Catholic University, and Washington and Lee University.
His service in academia was interspersed with a variety of other activities. Colvin served as a field director of the Red Cross during World War I. He was editor of the magazine Arizona. He established a free legal clinic in Montana. In Louisiana, he edited a column, appearing in state newspapers, concerning the effect of decisions and legislation on everyday life. During his teaching years, he spent summers as a student. This is how he earned his J.S.D. degree from Yale in 1926. He spent the summers of 1931 and 1932 studying international law at The Hague.
In 1934 Colvin went to Washington, D.C. to help some citizens obtain aid from the federal government. At the urging of the very officials whose aid he had sought for others, Colvin began what would be a seventeen year career in government service. He did legal work for eight different agencies, sometimes being loaned from one agency to another to do temporary jobs of particular difficulty. As chief counsel to Harry Hopkins, director of the WPA, Colvin established corporations in every state to dispense aid. He spent six months in Alaska establishing the Matanuska colony, a project for the resettlement on fertile land of farmers from the dust bowl.
During his years at Washington and Lee, Colvin was highly regarded by his students and colleagues. Only two complaints are recorded about his time at W&L. Due to an error in his Who’s Who entry, he was thought to be only sixty-five when he was hired. There was no misrepresentation on the part of Colvin, but when his true age was discovered, university rules then in force required that his course load be restricted. In time, he taught only his very popular International Law course. A matter of greater contention was Colvin’s introduction of the practice of smoking in class, which had previously been banned by custom.
Colvin is honored by a plaque which hangs in Sydney Lewis Hall, a gift of the Student Bar Association. A faculty resolution honoring Colvin at the time of his death in August 1956 states, in part, he "brought ... a rare scholarship, a background rich with experience, a wit equal to any challenge, and a heart so kind as to make him beloved by all."