It was Saturday morning in Memphis, and a big crowd had gathered on the banks of the Mississippi for the May 26 Great American River Run, a half marathon. Someone snapped a picture of participant 1127, the Hernando de Soto Bridge swooping across the water behind him. He’s wearing lime green shorts, a royal blue T-shirt and sunglasses and a big, happy grin.
He had reason to smile. A year after graduating first in his class from the University of Tennessee College of Law with the highest grades ever recorded, Spenser Powell, 28, had the world on a string. He was about to begin a clerkship with a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals and had a great job awaiting him in Nashville when his clerkship was done. He’d gotten himself in top physical shape and was happily in love with Elizabeth Holland, a recent UT law graduate who is studying for the bar exam.
His future was bright and limitless as the sunshine in his face.
Some two hours later, he would collapse 200 yards short of the finish line.
Three days later, Powell – respected for his intelligence, revered for his kindness and loved for his humility – was pronounced dead. His funeral will be held Saturday (6/9). His family announced that his organs have been harvested for donation.
Green Jacket moments
Powell and his friend and classmate Derek Mullins were part of a group of eight law students who formed a tight-knit bond, studying and socializing together. Mullins, who practices law in Nashville, said everyone else in the group would celebrate the few-and-far-between occasions when another member of the group would best Powell academically.
“We called them Green Jacket moments, like in the Master’s, because they were so rare,” Mullins said. “I’ve had friends and acquaintances (who saw his obituary) ask if I knew him. When I tell them we were very close friends, everybody says the same thing – that it’s just an incredibly sad story. Such a waste of an exceptional person. We all know that whatever it was, he was going to do something impressive. All the plaudits you’ve heard are true. He earned every single one of them, hands down.”
Mullins knew Powell in undergraduate school at UTK as well. Powell majored in philosophy and political science and minored in French, and Mullins said he always knew his friend was going to accomplish big things.
So did Morgan Hanna Adams, who was a year behind Powell in law school and also hails from Memphis. “Not only was he the smartest person, but he was humble and kind,” she said.
They became acquainted when Adams chaired the Black Law Students Association and Powell chaired the American Constitution Society. The two organizations got together and co-sponsored an event for Black History Month that drew an enormous audience.
“We learned more about each other and about the constitution and how it affects everyone. His humility, intellect and kind heart are unmatched. Period. He was just amazing,” Adams said. “I absolutely loved him. There will never be another Spenser Powell. He was just everything.”
Classmate Matthew McClanahan agrees.
“I don’t think I’ll ever meet anybody like Spenser again. He was a once in a generation type student, with so much ability. I really and truly believe he’s got one of the most amazing minds that’s ever come through the UT College of Law. The world will miss Spenser Powell – the things he could have done. The fact that he won’t be able to share those abilities and talents with the world is a tragedy.”
Powell’s professors are grieving, too.
“A lot of people throw the word ‘unique’ around, but it’s true about Spenser,” said Penny White, E. Overton Distinguished Professor of Law, who is director of the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, and interim director of Clinical Programs. She came to know Powell well during his years here.
She ticked off a list of his honors and awards and recalled the night of the honors banquet his last year in school:
“Students were called for awards, and Spenser got so many the MC said, ‘Spenser, why don’t you just stay up here for a while?’ He was brilliant – there’s no question about that, but he also cared a great deal about others. He was very modest and incredibly kind and was able to wear his intelligence so lightly. There are a lot of smart people, but he was a smart person and a good person.”
White’s closest interaction with Powell came through the moot court program she runs. Powell was on the Leadership Board and was chosen to formulate the Advocate’s Prize question, which requires writing a narrative that raises legal issues that could end up before the Supreme Court. Students argue the finished questions before distinguished visiting judges (sometimes very famous ones). The event requires intensive research of pending issues in courts all over the country.
“The two issues Spenser picked were extremely complex (class actions and injunctive relief). In most years, I have to prod students to get something sophisticated enough to present to the judges – not so with Spenser. He had to explain it to me.”
White said the visiting judges thought the questions had been purchased from some legal research company and were “dumbfounded” to learn that it was written by a student.
Sibyl Marshall is head of Public Services at the law library and teaches legal research. Powell was in her class several years ago and was a regular in the library, where she would see him daily.
“He was absolutely brilliant but he worked just as hard as he was smart,” Marshall said. “He was in the same seat in the library every single day before 7 a.m. with his face in a book. We joked after he graduated that we were going to rope off his seat and prevent anyone else from sitting there; it would be a special Spenser Powell Shrine.”
Before he started law school, Powell took a “gap” year and interned at the office of attorney Don Bosch, who liked him so well he extended the internship for a second year. Bosch remembers teasing Powell about his 3.98 undergraduate grade point average.
“I asked him, ‘Who dared give you a B?’ He said it was an A-minus,” Bosch said, describing Powell as “an incredibly sweet, really intelligent kid. Very observant, incredibly bright and incredibly good with basic research. I’d have kept him forever, except he needed to get on to law school.”
Melanie Wilson, dean of the law school, described Powell the same way everyone else did – kind, generous, involved and “wicked smart.” She compiled this list of his accomplishments:
“Knoxville Auxiliary to the Tennessee Bar Association Award for attaining the highest scholastic average during his first year of law school, after attaining the top grades in nine courses.
“In his first year, he won the Harshfield Award for Excellence in Civil Procedure I and II and the Cunningham Legal Research Award for exemplary legal research.
“In his second year, he earned the Herbert L. Davis Award for achieving the highest-grade average during that year.
“He served on the Tennessee Law Review as the executive editor and received that journal’s “Silver Pen” award for writing an exemplary case note and served as managing blog editor of Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law.
“He was president of the American Constitution Society and of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund.
“He was an amazing oral advocate and served as vice chair of the Moot Court Board. As a member of the College’s National Moot Court Team (for two years), he competed with two teammates to win the regional competition and was named Best Advocate. At the national competition, his team – with Erin Phillips (UT Law ’18) and Alex Thomason (UT Law ’17)) lost in the semi-final round to the eventual winner of the entire competition, Wake Forest. He was honored with the Susan Devitt National Moot Court Award and the McClung Medal, which recognizes outstanding performance in all areas of moot court.
“Additionally, he volunteered his time to several UT Pro Bono projects, including Legal Aid of East Tennessee, the Saturday Bar Clinic, the Tennessee Free Legal Answers Project and the Alternative Spring Break Project.”
Funeral services will be 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 9, at Memorial Park Funeral Home in Memphis with visitation at 1:30 and a reception following the graveside service. Survivors include his father, Jeffrey Powell; mother, Sonia Faulkner Brown; stepfather, Richard Allan Brown Jr.; brothers Buddy Ray Ladd, Nolan Michael Brown, Graham Matthew Brown Jr.; sisters Ashley Marie Powell, Lillian Grace Powell; grandparents, Dr. Thomas Hickey, Bettye Jo Powell, and Alice and Fred Bryant; love of his life, Elizabeth Holland.
After graduating from law school, he served as a judicial law clerk for Chief Judge Thomas A. Varlan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. In August, he was going to begin his judicial clerkship for Judge Carolyn King of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Houston, Texas. He was set to become an associate in the litigation group of Bass Berry & Sims in Nashville upon completion of his clerkships.