Dan Pollitt is no fashion plate. Never has been. Ask daughter Phoebe to summarize Dad’s sartorial savvy:

“No comment.”

One student suggests “appropriately professorial”–as in, distinguishedly disheveled.

“My uncle Basil,” notes Pollitt’s son Danny, “used to say you could put a Pollitt in a $300 suit and he’d still soon look like he’d been sleeping in a gutter.”

Goofy hats, lefty-sloganed T-shirts, well-worn sandals: These, too, have been mainstays of the Pollitt ensemble. “Sometimes I think my dad dresses to amuse,” says Phoebe, and now we’re gaining definition.

Certainly–whether in the classroom, the courtroom, or just hangin’ out with the boys–Dan Pollitt finds his pleasures. “You can see, when someone has opposed his position,” notes Betty Bailey of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, “how he loves that.”

Chapel Hill attorney Bill Massengill nails it: “He’s the aggressive-liberal gentleman. Dan can aggressively press his ideas without offending people.” Even when those ideas are quite hopelessly out of fashion–as they so very often are.

Take, for example, Pollitt’s defense of free association amid Red Scare panic. Or integration in the Jim Crow South. It took the times some time to catch up with Pollitt on those two.

Or what about advocating labor unions in a “right-to-work” state? How very un-20th century. And Pollitt’s predilection for the abolishment of state-sanctioned executions? Next season, maybe, or perhaps the one after that.

Regardless, Pollitt will continue answering to his inner sense of style–and bugger all to mainstream mavenry. The man’s a maverick. Professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law, Pollitt each day dons “appropriate” attire and heads to the office to take care of business–the business of protecting civil liberties, civil rights and the underdog. This business has kept Pollitt actively engaged for a full historic half-century–imagining, interpreting, engaging.

He continues to counsel, to write, to teach: Wednesday afternoons you’ll find him behind a lectern at the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement, discussing free speech with a rapt, participatory class of contemporaries. And he continues to raise the occasional stink. Most recently: his objection to raising faculty pay at UNC by means of a tuition hike. Colleagues call: “What the hell‘s the matter with you, Dan?”

He laughs. All of him laughs, in fact–good-naturedly, mischievously, conspiratorially. Pollitt is grandfatherly, impish, sly, smooth, disarming and always plainspoken–with a soft voice, an octave above midrange, in need of a drop of WD40. Though technically not from the South, he’s very much of it: courtly, finely aged, having a heck of a time.

“Some people think liberal men can’t get it up,” Deborah Ross, executive director of the N.C. Civil Liberties Union, says with a laugh. Pollitt, she knows, finds no shortage of stimulation.

“I’m a teacher and a family man and a civil libertarian,” he says, “an activist who tries to get things done.”

Done indeed, and not always to the approval of the majority. Blunt objects have been cast at Pollitt; more often, sharp words. What a drag it is being unfashionable.

We were for Al Smith,” says Pollitt, describing his earliest fond memory of an out-of-step cause. “Everybody else was for Herbert Hoover” in the 1928 presidential election. “All the kids threw horse chestnuts at me when I wore my Al Smith button. I was 7 or 8 or so.”

Pollitt was born July 6, 1921, in Washington, D.C. His father, Basil, was a Marine Corps officer stationed at Quantico. When given the option of going to Nicaragua to fight the Sandinistas or leave the Corps, he opted for life as a civilian.

It was the right choice. The elder Pollitt, who’d been sent to law school while in the service, began to prosper as an attorney, eventually going to work at the Department of Justice under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

“All the people who came for dinner,” Dan Pollitt recalls, “were lawyers working for the Department of Justice and that was our social life–New Dealers of various stripes.” It was an intellectually stimulating environment, he says, infused with idealism: “There was a lot of political activity, and there were gradations of leftists: the Young Communist League, the Socialist Workers Party.” Within that spectrum, the Pollitts fell “pretty far to the left,” while still “ardent New Dealers.”

Both parents came from generally distinguished, occasionally eccentric stock. His mother’s father had an Episcopalian mission in Cincinnati. Elbert Hubbard, Pollitt’s grandmother’s brother on his father’s side, was a leader of the Roycrofters (a furniture-building commune in upstate New York), a regular on the Chautauqua lecture circuit and author of the inspirational essay A Message to Garcia. The book sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and is said to have been translated into every written language, but did nothing to keep Hubbard from going down with the Lusitania.

Pollitt attended Western High School, on the edge of Georgetown. “There was still a Civil War law that all high-school students had to join the cadet corps so that we’d be prepared to defend the District”–presumably, from the likes of ardent New Dealers–“and we had to march twice a week and do all the military things. We had uniforms.

“They also had a crazy law that you couldn’t mention the Soviet Union, and when we would study geography or something they’d pull down a map and there’d be this blank space. I remember asking the geography teacher, ‘What’s that blank space, teacher?’ ‘Shut up, you!’ I was trying to irk her.

“It was a different time, different place. And it was all segregated. I didn’t have any black friends. I didn’t know any blacks. Except our maid.”

Young Dan’s great passion at the time? “Home rule for the District of Columbia! No taxation without representation!”

The wondrous prospect of it brightens him still.

Dan Pollitt,” says Deborah Ross, “is a combination of Don Quixote and one of the best legal minds we’ll ever have.”

“I believe in free speech, I believe in nude dancing, I believe in the works,” Pollitt says, staking his claim.

“The people who need protection are usually the outsiders; the First Amendment isn’t necessary for insiders. It’s got to be something that’s a little shocking, a little offbeat, something that’s annoying, something that may be dangerous. That’s the need of the First Amendment.”

It would be against McCarthyism that Pollitt would begin to hone his juridical chops. But his mother, Mima, taught him early on that the only fight truly worth fighting was in defense of the underdog.

In the late 1930s, Basil Pollitt suffered a mental breakdown and remained in a mental hospital for seven or eight years. The Pollitts divorced and Mima, now a single mother of three, began to take in wash to make ends meet. Over the years she’d been piecing together a law degree, picking up classes wherever her husband’s career had led them–Yale, Rutgers, George Washington. Eventually, she earned her degree and, after several attempts, passed the bar in the District of Columbia.

Mima Pollitt would go on to take a position at the U.S. Department of Justice, one of the very few woman lawyers there at the time, before moving to the Department of the Interior, where she worked on Indian rights. During World War II, she was assigned to the War Relocation Authority, serving as a spokeswoman for interned Japanese-Americans, visiting the camps, listening to complaints. Upon retirement, she set up private practice.

“She had a little law office in Georgetown, out of her home,” says Pollitt, “where all the elderly women who had problems would come to her and she was quick to go down and fix it or see the people who could fix it.”

Pollitt left home for Wesleyan University in September 1939, just as Hitler was invading Poland. Recognizing that the United States inevitably would be entering the war, he enlisted in the Marine Reserve, receiving his officers’ training at Quantico over a summer break from school. The following summer was spent in Mexico, building a school with the American Friends Service Committee. “Quite a contrast,” he says today.

In December 1942, he was called to active duty–first at a naval ammunitions depot outside Norfolk, then into action. With the Second Marine Division, he traveled the Pacific, suffering two slight wounds: the first, a grenade wound; the second, in his words, “sort of unique.”

“We were advancing, spread out in a skirmish line, 5 or 6 feet apart, and you’d just go forward. We were going through a sugarcane field, and you have your canteen, which is attached to your webbed belt, and my canteen had fallen off. So I was carrying my canteen in my hand, waiting for a break when I could fix it. And I stepped on a Japanese soldier. He reared up with his pistol, and it misfired. I started to hit him with my canteen, and he had a bayonet of some sort and slashed my hand. The sergeant shot him.

“That was my hand-to-hand. Only it was canteen-to-knife.”

He was sent to Nagasaki, less than a month after the atomic bomb was dropped, “not knowing what the hell to expect, with fixed bayonets. And there was nothing there, you know. It was all atomized.

“I’m against atom bombs.”

Back home after the war, Pollitt was unsure what to do with his life. He subsisted, initially, through the veterans’ 52/20 club: 20 bucks a week for 52 weeks, in exchange for which he executed such tasks as “handing out toothpaste at 14th and F.”

In his spare time he took a law-school entrance exam at Yale and failed.

“I didn’t do well. The first question was what is bombazine. Do you know what bombazine is?” he asks, describing dark silk. “Well, I knew because I read a lot of detective novels.

“I didn’t know the others.”

He also considered Columbia, where his brother was enrolled, but “I couldn’t go to law school in the same city where Greenwich Village existed. I would’ve shared my time unwisely.”

After being accepted into law school at Cornell, and graduating with distinction, Pollitt made his way to Capitol Hill.

“I got a job clerking for a court of appeals judge in the District of Columbia, Henry W. Edgerton, and he was probably the most liberal federal court judge there was at the time. He was highly regarded for his opinions and he was always mentioned as the next person on the Supreme Court during the Roosevelt period, but he never made it.”

From there, Pollitt took a job with the highly respected civil rights and civil liberties attorney Joseph L. Rauh.

“We had the United Auto Workers and the Pullman car workers and the farmworkers–H.L. Mitchell was the head of the farmworkers. Those were our labor-union clients, and they were all progressive people. Pension, guaranteed income, equal pay for women, civil rights–these were all new concepts. Mitchell was trying to organize migrant workers and A. Phillip Randolph was trying to protect the rights of the black [railroad] firemen.

“The firemen used to shovel coal, and in the Southeast they were all black. It was a very dirty job, a very difficult job. Then came the diesel, and now you turn a knob and look out the window. And the whites wanted the job.

“So the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen adopted bylaws and so on to get the blacks out of the profession, and there was a series of lawsuits to keep the jobs for the blacks and to make the union represent them–fair representation, honest representation.”

Representing such “fringe” forces in the labor movement would eventually cost Rauh his union clientele. But the firm had always operated along the edge. Its offices were at the corner of K Street and Connecticut in the District, “where the Harding gang,” as in President Warren G., “used to play poker.”

Meanwhile, Pollitt had wed Jean Ann Rutledge–daughter of Wiley Rutledge, a Roosevelt-appointed Supreme Court justice–and was now defending cases before the House Un-American Committee (HUAC).

“We didn’t make much money,” Pollitt recalls of those days. “It was extremely exciting and it was six days a week and we lived in Georgetown, my wife and I, and there was a party every Saturday afternoon. And if I wanted to get to the bar through the big crowd, all I had to say was, ‘I had a client on Tuesday before HUAC and … ‘ Nobody wanted to be near me; it was like the Red Sea parting.”

Pollitt tried 10 to 15 cases before HUAC and assisted Rauh on others, including the trials of Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller.

“Hellman was the girlfriend of Dashiell Hammett,” who had been involved in a bail fund for top communists. “She said she wasn’t a communist, but that during the ’30s she had attended meetings with other writers and actors and they would discuss communism, a weekly luncheon group.” But she wouldn’t name names. You weren’t allowed to plead the First Amendment before HUAC, and if you pleaded the Fifth you were a ‘Fifth Amendment Communist’; that was McCarthy’s slogan.

“And if you were a Fifth Amendment communist,” Pollitt recalls, “you’d better be fired or they’d subpoena your employer to find out why you weren’t fired. So pleading the Fifth meant you lose your job; if you don’t plead the Fifth, you go to jail. … So that was the problem.” Hellman said she’d tell all about herself, but if they wanted names, she’d plead the Fifth.

In the midst of her trial, Pollitt began to pass out a letter Hellman had written to the committee, explaining her position. “The chairman says, ‘We don’t allow communists to distribute their dirty literature in this room.’ I looked at Joe; Joe said go ahead. ‘Bailiff, arrest that man.’ Me. So I ran back and sat down next to Joe, and they resumed. But I was scared to death.”

Hellman was blacklisted.

“When you protect the First Amendment,” Pollitt says, “you protect the people who need it, who are offending mainstream America and cultural values. If you don’t, it’s like [Rev. Martin] Niemöller said, ‘First they came for the communists and I wasn’t a communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Jews and I wasn’t a Jew, so I said nothing. Then they came for the trade unionists and I wasn’t a trade unionist, so I said nothing. And then they came for the Catholics and I was a Protestant, so I said nothing. Then they came for me and there was nobody left to speak up.’

“So that’s the way it goes. You start off with the communists and then you get the Trotskyites and then you get anybody who looks like one … and that was the way the loyalty program we had in the McCarthy period worked. They thought, we’ve got to get rid of the disloyal, treasonous people. Well, they couldn’t find any. So they said, well, next best thing, we’ll get rid of all the communists. Well, they couldn’t find very many communists. And so, well, we’ll get people who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union during World War II, which was many. And then people who gave money to help buy an ambulance for loyalist Spain during the ’30s. And it went on and on and on.

“There were about three other law firms in town that would take loyalty cases, House Un-American Committee cases. It was a very unpopular thing to do; it was like representing a child molester or something.

“When I went to work for Joe Rauh, the first day, he said, ‘You know if you come to work for me you’ll never be attorney general.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘There are any number of people eligible to be attorney general and if they can find a good reason for excluding anybody, working for me is sure a good reason.’

“But I didn’t have any ideas of high office.”

Dan Pollitt is a teacher. “Youth guide us,” he says, and for 45 years he’s had a gentle hand in vectoring that guidance. “I consider myself an academic-slash-activist. ‘Cause I am an academic.”

Pollitt always figured he’d practice law for five years or so and then go teach. His mother had told him there was nothing finer than a law professor.

He took a position at the University of Arkansas in 1955, returning to Washington in the summers to assist Rauh. Things were going pretty well in Arkansas until Pollitt was informed that in order to keep his state job, he’d have to sign a “disclaimer oath, stating that you are not now nor ever have been a member of the NAACP.

“That wasn’t going to hold up; it’d been tried before and had failed. And so they broadened the loyalty oath to say, ‘… or any organization on the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations.’ Well, I’d spent five years fighting that,” Pollitt laughs. “So I thought, well, I’m not going to sign it. But if I didn’t sign it, I didn’t get paid. So I had to leave Arkansas.”

And then? “Well, you add that on to my five years with Joe Rauh …” Not every institution of higher learning in the land was eager to hire Dan Pollitt.

But good fortune would shine. Pollitt had served as counsel to the Sharecroppers Fund, on whose board of directors–along with Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas and Eleanor Roosevelt–sat UNC President Frank Porter Graham. One day, after a board meeting, Thomas told him that he should considering going to Chapel Hill.

“He said, ‘I get innumerable invitations to speak on campuses every year. And usually I say sure, because I know most of the time I’ll get a letter from the college president saying, ‘Very sorry the students invited you. They didn’t look at the calendar and see that there’s a conflict with the big track meet we’re having.’

“But when I get an invitation to Carolina,” Thomas continued, “I check my book because I know it’s not going to be cancelled … and Frank Porter Graham will be on the first row leading the applause. So you go to this man’s college.’”

“We came in the springtime,” Pollitt remembers, “and everything was blooming.”

Pollitt taught what became, over the years, a famous seminar class, often meeting in his home, in which students would take on prisoner appeals, perhaps, or assist the ACLU.

“I used to joke, sort of, in labor law that if anybody wanted to go out and organize a plant, and if they’d get a majority vote, they’d get an A. Nobody ever tried it.”

An academic first, yes, but seldom far removed from the flip side of the “slash”: activist.

“I try to recognize all points of view; I try not to embarrass anybody and praise everybody that raises their hand. And then if nobody else’ll say it, I’ll say it.”

“He teaches people to look at the law with optimism,” says Mike Okun, an attorney, officer of the AFL-CIO and a former Pollitt student, “which means that the good people should always win under the law. Those who don’t agree with him might say that he looks at the law with blinders on. But he just has a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm for using the law to help people, and he’s passed that on to many, many others.”

Others like attorney Wade Smith of Raleigh, who tells how Dan Pollitt became one of his heroes: “I came to [UNC] law school from a small town. I didn’t have any lawyers in my family. Mom and Dad were textile workers who had had to quit school because of the Depression. They worked hard so that I could make my way in the world. I didn’t know any lawyers, and Dan simply took me under his wing. I watched him and I knew what a lawyer could be–what a difference a lawyer could make. His idealism seeped into me and helped me to be what I am.

“He’s a wonderful, wonderful mixture of idealism and the law.”

Smith remembers a field trip to the U.S. Supreme Court: “We went to see an argument that related to the whole exploding idea of race in the South–this was ’62 or ’63–and Dan introduced us to lawyers involved in those cases, we heard arguments. It was clear to me, had been for some time, where Dan stood in the whole revolution going on in the South; he was in the midst of it.”

Back home, Pollitt recalls, Chapel Hill was suffering “the same problem that existed everywhere else in the South: Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, and nothing’s happening.

“The Community Church started an ad hoc committee to integrate the Chapel Hill school system, and we had hearings and so on, and nothing worked. And then we elected people to the school board and it worked, and we started to integrate.”

Still, in the early ’60s, “we had two theaters in town, right there at Columbia and Franklin, and neither one would allow blacks. If the blacks in Chapel Hill wanted to see a movie, they had to go to Durham, where they had a balcony at the big theater there. And Porgy and Bess came to town, which is the story about blacks in Charleston, and it’s a classic, and the English teacher at Lincoln High School went to see the theater owner and said, ‘I’d like to take my English class to see Porgy and Bess, can we make some arrangements–after the show, before the show, a Saturday morning show?’ And the manager said no.

“So, ultimately, it got to Charlie Jones”–a minister and prominent civil rights activist–“at the Community Church, and he went to see the theater owner. Paul Green went to see the theater owner. Nothing happened.

“So, we thought, we’ll picket the theater. I was the first picketer with a black high-school girl in that English class. We picketed all that winter.” Generally, even for Saturday-night screenings, no more than a dozen or so people would enter the theater. “Then when spring came, they gave in.”

Pollitt had now fully established his activist rep.

“Everybody knew who I was and what I was doing,” he says. “I had the support of the faculty. I was elected to head the tenure committee and I was elected to be on the faculty advisory committee to the chancellor, and then I was elected to be the chairman of the faculty–and it was because of, not in spite of, I believe.”

One example of “because of,” from 1965, has become a chapter in campus lore.

“There were no blacks in the ACC, and Charlie Scott was down at Laurinburg Academy and was thought to be a great high-school basketball player. He had signed up for Davidson, but he’d never been there. So he called [Coach] Lefty Driesell and said he’d like to see the place. Lefty said fine, I’ll drive down some Sunday, pick you up, we’ll visit it and then I’ll drive you home. So they got to Davidson on a Sunday, and at that time the university closed the cafeteria on Sunday evening, and so the coach took Charlie to one of the two restaurants in town, where the guy said, ‘Coach, you know we don’t serve niggers here.’

“So Charlie decided he was not gonna go to Davidson. Dean Smith found out about it. I had given a speech a month or so earlier to the state NAACP, and the headmaster at Laurinburg Academy and his wife were at the speech. So when Dean Smith called him and said he’d like to come down and visit with him and visit with Charlie Scott, they suggested that he bring me with him.

“So I went with him and we saw a basketball game and we had dinner with the headmaster and his wife and Charlie Scott, and invited Charlie to come up here and visit the campus, where Dean Smith is a member of the Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, Bob Seymour is the minister, and Bob Seymour arranged to have a black intern preach the sermon that Sunday.

“Charlie Scott thought he’d like to be a pre-med, so the rumor is they let him perform an appendectomy. But he decided to come here, and that broke the color line in the ACC.”

Dan Pollitt is a civil rights attorney, and a civil liberties attorney. “There is a conflict there that comes up in various situations. Like the race-hate controversy now going on. A lot of people think you ought to ban anti-minority speech, or homophobic speech, and that people ought to be punished for their speech.

“And on the other side are people who say no, people should be allowed to be homophobic and they should be allowed to be prejudiced and express their prejudice–and there’s the conflict between civil rights and civil liberties. It’s difficult, but I usually feel that as a basic principle you have to start off with civil liberties.”

As a compelling example, he cites a confrontation in Robeson County in 1958 between the Ku Klux Klan, led by James “Catfish” Cole, and local Lumbee Indians. It’s recently been back in the news, with many in the area calling for official commemoration of the event as an epochal moment in the struggle for civil rights.

“There’d been an interracial marriage of an Indian and a white,” Pollitt remembers, “and the Klan got concerned about interracial marriages. So they decided to have a rally on somebody’s farm, a private farm. And they did the cross burnings and the songs and Catfish talked about purity of the races or something. And there was a group of mostly Indians who didn’t like the Klan coming to Robeson County. So they trespassed and there was some shooting, and a TV cameraman from WRAL was hit.

“So they got Catfish Cole for inciting a riot, because he incited the Lumbees, by his speech, to shoot. I argued they can’t let the vigilantes destroy the First Amendment. Catfish didn’t do anything, it was the vigilantes who had. And I lost. The state Supreme Court held that you can get Catfish Cole for making a speech that stirred the Indians to anger and to action.

“Then a few years later, we had the sit-ins in Greensboro. And the black students from A&T were sitting very quietly with their shirts and ties all neat, and people would come and pour coffee on them. And who gets arrested? The black sit-in-ers, because they were inciting the vigilantes to action. And I won on that one.

“It was the same situation, but instead of the Klan it was civil rights demonstrators. The law’s indivisible: You have to protect them all, or you’re going to have serious inroads.”

But isn’t it difficult defending characters one finds objectionable?

“I don’t usually find them objectionable. I find them victims.” A pause. A nod. “Yeah.”

“It’s a difficult time to win,” says the ACLU’s Deborah Ross. “Battles are being refought, and it’s easy to get burnt out. When I have those days, I need someone like Dan. He always reminds me, when I get into my I’ve-been-around-the-block mood, that the pendulum always swings back, and how important it is that when things get good again you’re still committed and still have the fervor–that one day you’re going to slay the dragon.”

W.W. Finlator, pastor emeritus of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and a lifelong activist, remembers arriving in North Carolina in 1956 and quickly being made aware of the “leadership of a young law professor on faculty at UNC, very early on fighting right-to-work laws, exposing them as a euphemism” for the stifling of unionization.

Finlator found that “whenever a matter of civil liberties or the rights of women or minorities arose,” you’d likely find Dan Pollitt right there.

“The essence is to protect,” Pollitt explains. “As Plato or somebody said, when will we get justice in Athens? When those who don’t have any problems care about those who do have problems, or words to that effect. And that means you have to protect the least amongst you.”

Which is why he’s actively opposed to the death penalty.

“I’ve always been against it, as far as I can remember. And my children have always been against it, as far as I can remember. I wasn’t really involved in it in recent years. I’d go to every vigil. Once or twice I spoke at a vigil, at the church–you go to the church and then you march to the prison. And I’d usually say we have the lawyers with us and we should recognize them and appreciate what they’re doing. If nobody’s doing that, that’s my role.

“But then the ABA [American Bar Association] came out with its proposal for a moratorium, and seemingly their recommendation fell on deaf ears. So I thought, well, somebody ought to do something. So I suggested that we have this daylong colloquium to discuss the various problems that the ABA was concerned with. It took some planning and fundraising and all that. It was a project. And then it was over. But that’s not enough. We put a lot of energy into this.”

Ross was among those who lent their energies to the colloquium, and was generally pleased with the outcome. But “is Dan happy?” she asks, rhetorically. “No; Dan’s not happy. We’ve got to have a video … and then not only is it a video, we’ve got to have a book,” Unjust in the Much: The Death Penalty in North Carolina.

“The least amongst us are the people on death row,” Pollitt says. “My experience, my personal experience and my learning experience is that the people we choose to execute are those who we throw out, they’re the outcasts, we cast them out of society and then we punish them for what anybody can anticipate. We throw people out of society in the sense that they have broken homes; they are sexually abused; they turn, probably, to alcohol or something when they’re 12 or 13 or 14; they’re undereducated.

“You go and look at the occupations of [death-row inmates]: unemployed textile worker. That’s a good one. None, is what you usually find. They’re unskilled, untrained outcasts. And they get drunk, and they kill somebody, and they usually do it in a rage. So instead of stabbing once, they’ll stab 85 times. Then we want vengeance on these people we’ve driven out. That’s the way I look at it. And what can you do? Not much, except try to substitute lifetime without parole.

“I think people can change. You rehabilitate people. Well, you’ve got the Mansons, who can’t be helped, maybe. So you pick and choose who stays in and who gets out.”

Dan Pollitt is a family man. Like most every other Pollitt, his wife of 50 years, Jean, is an attorney. She’s also an activist, and their life together has been one that would bring great joy to the Chautauqua spirit of Dan’s Great Uncle Elbert Hubbard: education and entertainment bound as one.

“She’s the unsung hero of the family,” says daughter Phoebe, the only one of the three Pollitt siblings who chose not to be a lawyer, but who then went out and married one anyway. “She’s done more than keep the home fires burning.” As an activist, Jean would lead protests in Washington, D.C.; as an attorney, she’d sometimes bring her husband’s students in for on-the-job training. Pollitt credits her open-mindedness for shaping the social receptiveness of their children; he calls her “the least prejudiced person I’ve known.”

“One nice thing about Dan and Jean is how welcoming they are,” says niece and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. Of holiday gatherings, she says, “They’re always rounding up waifs and strays.”

The Pollitt home, along Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill, a horse chestnut’s throw from campus, is outfitted with the accoutrements of three generations: the classics, kids’ songbooks, a coffee mug that reads: “Things to do today: 1. Stop the arms race. 2. Floss.”

“We just tried to teach the children to be honest and to care about society and do what they can to help out,” Pollitt says. “And you do it by example. You take ’em to the protests: Our children rode the buses to Washington to protest the Vietnam War.”

“We would go to Glen Echo Amusement Park outside Bethesda and picket,” says Phoebe, recalling another family activity. The park was segregated. “We didn’t get to ride the rides or eat cotton candy.”

“One summer day,” says Danny, remembering out-of-school time spent in Washington, “we had nothing better to do, so he took us to the D.C. Superior Court. Three guys were being tried for stealing wigs. We were the only ones there watching.”

Even more traditional activities could find civic application: “When I was in third grade,” Phoebe recalls, “he helped me earn my cooking badge by having me cook cookies for the civil rights volunteers in downtown Chapel Hill.”

“I think I was a good father,” Pollitt allows, remembering such old Chapel Hill outings as Saturday-afternoon UNC basketball games at Woolen Gym, where you just showed up and walked in.

Danny concurs: “He was a good father. He was around a lot, he played basketball with me outside. But he was a failure as a Cub Scout father. We had the worst soap box derby entry in all Chapel Hill.”

Phoebe remembers her dad’s “Marine Corps build” from those days, thanks to one-armed push-ups with kids aboard.

Danny, the eldest, and Susan, the youngest, are both Triangle residents; Phoebe lives in Boone, a nurse with the public schools. Weekends now include babysitting grandchildren and basketball games. “It’s a togetherness thing,” says Granddad.

And all of a whole. For the Pollitts, the interweave of private and professional life just comes natural. Dad gets pelted with golf balls while participating in an anti-Vietnam teach-in at the University of Oregon? No biggie.

Many years ago, when Phoebe Pollitt found herself in jail for an act of civil disobedience, her dad wrote: “It is difficult to say anything that makes sense from this distance and without much knowledge, but Mom, Susy and I are behind you whatever you do. You know I carry in my wallet, for easy observation, a card with the words ‘Illegitimos non carborundum’ (Don’t let the bastards get you down). Keep that in mind.”

Dan Pollitt is an optimist. In 1964, the U.S. News & World Report collected interviews with LBJ’s so-called “Idea Men” (including Margaret Mead), among whom Pollitt was counted, in a cover story titled “What the Future Holds for America.” Pollitt spoke of the need to invest in public schools and affirmed, “I deal with young people, and they are optimistic, and their enthusiasm is infectious.”

Apparently so. “I think each generation is smarter than the preceding generation,” Pollitt says today. He’s encouraged by a resurgence of activism on campuses, if a bit perplexed that while much attention is focused on labor conditions abroad, “We’ve got a lot of child labor in America; we’ve got a lot of unfortunate people in America. We have a lot of people working [under terrible conditions] in the chicken-processing plants and I don’t hear much concern about their plight.”

Still, he says, “any activism is good and I’ll encourage it any way I can.”

In fact, Pollitt recently became involved in the case of UNC-Chapel Hill student Chiara D’Amore, who was taken before the student Honor Court on charges of misusing university property. D’Amore’s offense: attempting to engage representatives of Kraft Foods, a division of Phillip Morris, in a discussion about the legitimacy of its campus recruiting. She scheduled a meeting with Kraft recruiters at University Career Services–for which, it was later learned, a $30,000 Kraft donation was pending–to express her opposition, then canceled it. The university charged that she had wasted the center’s time and resources.

Pollitt considers this an issue of free speech. “I told her we have to have an open hearing so everybody will know that we’re selling our birthright for a mess of porridge.

“What good does it do? Somebody will listen.”

D’Amore later chose to settle without going before the Honor Court.

Does Pollitt ever grow concerned that maybe, just maybe, he protests too much? That perhaps he should choose his battles?

“No. No.”

And he’s always felt exactly so. In another 1964 magazine article, this one for Harper’s and titled “Timid Lawyers and Neglected Clients,” Pollitt wrote:

Ultimately … it is up to the individual lawyer to safeguard his client’s rights. If he fails, the Constitution is a dead letter. If he undertakes the defense of all without consideration personal to himself,’ the Constitution becomes a living document. Every case–whether on behalf of the unpopular defendant or not–is a leap into the dark. No one can foretell what new evidence may turn up, what vagaries of chance may occur. … There is always the hazard of being undone.

But if the lawyer stays close by the campfire and never ventures forth, the circle of safety and freedom will contract. It always does if nobody preserves it by venturing forth and taking risks.

“You can’t pick and choose very well,” he says today. “You can’t say, ‘This is not worth it,’ or ‘I’ll lose,’ or worry that people will say, ‘Ehhh, that’s Dan Pollitt again.’ If you don’t do it, if you wait, you’re gonna wait and you’re gonna wait, and the fire will go out.”

Dan is someone who ought to be too old to be passionate,” says Bill Massengill, “but he’s still genteel and passionate,” still the aggressive-liberal gentleman.

“In courtrooms,” Massengill continues, “justices and judges come up and shake his hand.” Most could easily go into deep conniptions over his politics; some have. “But they all just idolize Dan.”

Count former state Supreme Court chief justice and former Pollitt student Burley Mitchell in that number.

“We probably differ on as many public policy decisions as we agree on, but he’s been a role model in standing up for what he believes in.

“He’s a great example of a life well spent.”

And Pollitt clearly appreciates the appreciation.

“I’m very happy with my life. I feel I’ve done some good,” he offers, and there, again, is that subversive chuckle, “and that I haven’t done anything bad.”

He’ll keep teaching, he says, “as long as I can perform.” And, speaking of unfashionable tendencies, “I’m writing a book on the need for an independent counsel.” In the process, Pollitt’s been tracking allegations about the misdeeds of heads-of-state around the world.

“Are we immune?” he asks, rhetorically. “The big question is, how do we guard ourselves from our guardians? Now that‘s a question that has rung out through the ages. And the answer we came to, after the Nixon performance, was an independent counsel.”

Which weaves seamlessly into the Pollitt fabric: “The underlying theme is to stop governmental abuse and to level the playing field and to expand the rights of the outcasts, the neglected, the poor. Most often the government is the opponent because the government represents the people who call the tune and pay the piper. And the old joke is, ‘The Golden Rule: Those who have the gold make the rule.’

“American society panics and they seek quick fixes and currently, for example, we have ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ A few years ago it was term limits. And thinking back to the McCarthyism, ‘Better Red Than Dead.’ We have these slogans and people quickly rush to ‘that’s the solution. We’ll have a term limit or we’ll lock ’em up for life,’ and they don’t think of the consequences and they often rush into madness. Then it has to be corrected and somebody has to try to stem the tide.”

That contrary consistency hasn’t changed through the years, but has Pollitt? “I hope I haven’t. I’ve gotten lazier, tireder. I’ve become inured to a lot of things that don’t shock me anymore. Very few things shock me or surprise me. [Now I say], ‘That’s the way it’s going, and I’ll have to do something about it.’

“I’m sure I don’t have the fire in the belly that I used to have.”

Others would disagree.

“He never rests,” says Betty Bailey, “from trying to make the world better.”

Pollitt still enjoys hangin’, too. “He has this group of old greyheads,” says Massengill, with all due respect, “who eat lunch together each week. I went recently and realized I was the only one who hadn’t fought in World War II, hadn’t tromped my way across the Pacific.”

Wade Smith’s fixed image of the Dan Pollitt he met nearly 40 years ago is also Dan Pollitt today:

“I’m looking at a man with a smile on his face, he’s beaming, he’s laughing, he’s talking about some Supreme Court decision. He’s a little rumpled–never too rumpled–a man who hasn’t been reading GQ lately, doesn’t have shiny shoes, didn’t worry if his tie was the best or matched his shirt. He’s a man whose every feature announces substance. He’s about ideas, not things.”

W.W. Finlator adds this: “Dan is attractive in most every way; he’s cut out of a different pattern.”

And fashion be damned. Besides, as Pollitt sees it: “I think everything’s cyclical.” Everything in time.

Speaking of which, he once was a Sunday school teacher.

“I used to read them Bible stories, and then we’d act them out. ‘Okay, now you’re Joseph, and you have a dream, and you tell your brother that you’re better. Now how would you feel if your kid brother got the coat and you didn’t get the coat? Would you throw him in a pit?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay, now who’s Joseph? Who’s gonna be the slave traders?

“‘This thing with Joseph, he’s a slave sold to a general or something, and the general’s away and the wife tries to seduce him,’–and you have to be a little bit careful here–‘and he says, no I won’t sleep with you; you’re an Egyptian. Well, there’s a wife that falls in love with Joseph and wants to kiss him. And he won’t kiss her. And she says, well, why won’t you kiss me? And he says, because you’re different from me. Well, is that right? And then she got mad and lied about him to her husband, and they threw him in the dungeon. Who’s right and who’s wrong?’

“So you can work these things out. Each one, all the Bible stories. And then they remember them a little bit. And we’d act it all out. You know, they can all be acted out pretty well.”

Pollitt has a laugh, remembering.

“And then we’d go outside and race through the woods.” EndBlock