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History Minute: Albert Witte

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Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist

Some people are fortunate enough to have lives that are a front-seat to history. Respected University of Arkansas law professor Albert Witte was one such man.
Witte was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1923. His parents moved several times when he was young before they divorced. Eventually, he and his mother settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he grew up and attended the local schools.
After graduating high school in 1942, he enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force. He served as a bombardier, flying 35 missions and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. After his 1945 discharge, he enrolled in college. He earned an undergraduate degree and a masters degree in English from the University of Chicago by 1950. After earning his maters degree, he worked as an English professor for two years at a college in Wisconsin. In 1952, he decided to take his life in a different direction and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
Once he graduated and passed the Wisconsin bar exam, he briefly worked for a law firm before deciding to return to teaching. As a result, he was hired by the University of Arkansas Law School in 1957, embarking on a long and storied career. He retold the story years later about his arrival in Arkansas just as the Little Rock desegregation crisis was reaching its peak.
He left the university for two years in the early 1960s to teach at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, before returning to Arkansas. He was in high demand with other law schools. He served as visiting professor for four other universities, including the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Witte served on the hiring committee in 1973 when the university hired a young Bill Clinton, just recently graduating from Yale Law School, as a law professor. Witte served as a mentor and colleague with Clinton while he taught at the law school. In fact, university records still show Witte’s official observation of Clinton’s Constitutional Law class in October 1975. Overall, he was impressed, noting, “Professor Clinton seems to rely on an unstructured approach to the material. . . I thought his questions were good and many of the responses spirited and intelligent. . .”
Clinton resigned his position at the university after he became the state’s attorney general in 1976, but Witte continued to teach. During the course of his career, Witte influenced the minds of young law students who would become prominent lawyers, judges, and politicians. He recalled in an interview that he had taught two future U. S. Senators, David Pryor and, years later, his son, Mark Pryor.
Witte lent his legal expertise to a variety of organizations. He served on the Fayetteville Planning Commission and as a consultant to the Southern Governor’s Conference from 1969 to 1971. From 1981 to 1990, he served as Special Assistant Attorney General for Arkansas. For many years, he served as the faculty athletic representative for the University of Arkansas. He served on the boards of several college athletic organizations as a result which eventually led him to serving as president of the NCAA from 1989 to 1991.
In 1994, Witte retired from teaching full time. Though he was 71 by this point, he still felt he had much to contribute and continued to teach a reduced load of one or two classes each semester as an emeritus professor. He continued to teach for another two decades. On December 23, 2015, after the last class of the last semester, he died at the age of 92 in Fayetteville.