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The Last of the Water Buffalo

Watch Professor Emeritus Travis H.D. Lewin present his last Water Buffalo Award and reminisce about his career at Syracuse University College of Law

After 45 Years, Professor Emeritus Travis H.D. Lewin Retires from Teaching

After a highly respected, 45-year career at the College of Law guiding generations of young law students in trial practice, Professor Emeritus Travis H.D. Lewin wrapped up teaching his final classes this month. Lewin semi-retired in 2005 but continued to teach a course each fall and assisted with trial advocacy competitions into the spring. It was the students that kept him in front of a classroom. “I’ve enjoyed watching what the students can do,” Lewin says. 

Lewin wanted to help them learn the best of what a trial lawyer can do for their client in the courtroom. “If you like watching a trial and you like a lawyer, that makes it easy for you to accept what the lawyer is saying. If you don’t like the lawyer, then we have a problem,” Lewin says. “Students have to be talented in the theater—the way they speak and their conversational abilities. They will run into unanticipated problems and they have to be able to deal with them without breaking down.”

Through the years, Lewin’s teaching and his work in the Trial Advocacy program impacted hundreds and hundreds of law students, who have gone on to varied and prestigious careers in public and private practice. He also helped students in several trial competition teams bring home regional and national titles. 

Before pursuing law, Lewin, who is from Springfield, South Dakota, initially thought he wanted to be an actor, having had some local theater under his belt in South Dakota. During his time with the U.S. Army Band, however, a trip to New York City where he met more talented but hopeful actors waiting tables showed him he needed to shift direction.

With encouragement from two of his hometown mentors, Lewin studied law at the University of South Dakota. After earning a bachelor of laws degree, he took a law clerk position with a federal judge. He then went into private practice for two years before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the civil division in South Dakota during the Kennedy administration. 

The practice of law and trying cases held his interest, but teaching was in his background. His grandfather was the president of a small teachers college, where his grandmother was a teacher and president for a short time. His mother also was a grade school teacher. 

However, it was a friend who eventually motivated him to pursue teaching. While an assistant U.S. attorney, Lewin befriended a fellowship graduate student working as a clerk to a federal judge. The young man, who had aspirations of teaching, was diagnosed with leukemia and died within a year. “He was a brilliant kid with a lot of ideas. He was something special we all lost,” Lewin says. “So that’s what inspired me to go into teaching.”

Lewin went on to earn a doctor of the science of law at the University of Michigan Law School and then took the offer to teach at Syracuse University after interviewing at a number of schools. With having completed a fellowship in law psychiatry at Michigan, Lewin helped start one of the first law psychiatry courses in the country at the College of Law. 

He also helped create a psychiatric defense center with other local lawyers to assist people who may have committed minor infractions but were improperly placed in prison hospitals due to indigence or other life circumstance. “Patients’ rights were just beginning to develop,” says Lewin, who also worked with another faculty member on establishing a law and aging clinic. “This group took on cases of people who were being involuntarily confined.”

During Lewin’s first summer at the College of Law, he also took on a Trial Practice course. He enjoyed still practicing trial law, but his focus soon shifted to building the Trial Advocacy program, along with Professor Gary Kelder. “I’m an advocate. It’s just in your blood,” says Lewin. “That’s why I wanted to have a Trial Practice course so at least I could get involved with the students and trial-like situations.”

At the time, new theories of persuasion in the courtroom were being considered through the work of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, through which Lewin began taking coursework. In the past, for example, opening statements would be more of a road map. “What the national institute taught us was how to be persuasive throughout, not argumentative—conversation replacing oration,” Lewin says.

Lewin’s advocate’s mentality was piqued further by an opportunity from the Texas Young Lawyer Association, which was starting the National Trial Competition. With the assistance of Syracuse attorney Emil Rossi, Lewin began training students for competition.

Along with Rossi, Lewin coached trial advocacy teams to the regional championships in 1977 and 1978, with a national championship win in 1977. While Lewin was teaching at Loyola in California in 1978-79, Rossi produced another national championship team. Following those competitions, Lewin’s teams won many regional championships, with a national runner-up team in 1982 and national semi-finalist teams in 1984 and 1986. Other teams into the 1980s also found success with regional victories and with three students named national best advocates.

“There was a lot of talent. Students have to show they’re capable of thinking on their feet, or that they are enjoying the toughness of the work,” Lewin says. “We still have the talent here but around the country it has gotten better.” He praised the work of adjunct professor and trial advocacy advisor Joanne VanDyke L’87, who coached a winning team at a recent national competition through Loyola Law School.

Lewin, who also advised Moot Court, stepped down from competitions in the 1980s to become interim dean for a time, but has continued to assist as needed with trial competitions, helping to craft trial scenarios.

Inside the classroom, Lewin prepared students in the techniques of opening and closing arguments and direct and cross examination. “They are fairly university in terms of style and forms of questions,” Lewin says. “There’s also an attitude a lawyer has to have—how to be persuasive—and teaching them those techniques. That’s what I do.”

To help with those skills, many local attorneys would appear in Lewin’s classroom through the years. “I brought in two lawyers each week to evaluate my students who were messing up the directs and crosses, and they would help critique,” says Lewin, who lectured around the country on trial advocacy and was a visiting professor at Loyola Law School.

Along with teaching, Lewin was a chair of a number of University committees, including the University senate agenda committee and several associated with the athletics program. Lewin also co-wrote two books and has written many law articles.

Outside of teaching, he served as a consultant to the Michigan and New York Departments of Mental Hygiene, the Syracuse Department of Police, the U.S. Courts for the Northern District of New York (as reporter to the Speedy Trial Act Planning Group), and the legislative commission on the proposed New York Code of Evidence. 

In 1984 he received the first Richard S. Jacobson Award for Distinguished Trial Advocacy Teaching by the Roscoe Pound American Trial Lawyers Association, and also received the Chancellor’s Citation for Academic Excellence. Lewin was also recognized for his contributions to his profession by the New York Academy of Trial Lawyers, which created the Travis H. D. Lewin Trial Advocacy Award. The award is presented to the overall outstanding student trial lawyer. 

After his retirement in 2005, Lewin continued to teach Evidence and Trial Practice courses. His last wrap-up session for his Evidence class this semester was marked by the yearly presentation of his own making—the Water Buffalo Award. The award, given to a student for participation, was named in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the New York State criminal procedure law that allows impeachment of a witness with any prior immoral acts. In his class, Lewin used the example to impeach a witness with the question of “is it true you were caught copulating with a water buffalo?”

“I created the International Order of Water Buffalo. We’re the only chapter and as of this semester, the chapter will fold,” Lewin says.

As with many students who have enjoyed Lewin’s irreverence over the years, Jason Krisza L’14 always looked forward to Lewin’s class. “The puns in the morning were an excellent way to humorously enter a serious day and remind us that while our studies are serious, the mind needs to be stimulated in other ways as well,” Krisza says.

This year’s Water Buffalo Award winner, Krisza was humbled and proud to be recognized by Lewin. “There is no doubt that Professor Lewin is the role model that I seek to emulate from my law school years,” he says. “Professor Lewin is exceptionally knowledgeable, professional, well spoken, and kind natured.”

Lewin brought motivation and enthusiasm to his teaching, Krisza says. “His demeanor and sincerity were amazing, and I hope that one day I will feel so passionately about something that I, like Lewin, will pour every ounce of myself into that love,” he says.

Although retired from teaching, Lewin, who has two daughters and sons-in-laws along with grandchildren, will remain active in the study of law—and continue as a presence in the halls of the College of Law. “I hope to continue to write and draft trial problems, which have been used across the country,” Lewin says. “I also have some research projects that I want to do, and so I’ll do that as long as I have an office here.”