Remembering Emeritus Professor Louis Waller AO 1935–2019

By Professor Bernadette McSherry (LLB(Hons) ’84, LLM ’89), Foundation Director, Melbourne Social Equity Institute and Professor of Law, Melbourne Law School.

Imagine an older style lecture theatre, with tiered seating and blackboards, a large desk at the front. A stern-looking man enters and the room hushes. He is wearing an impeccable navy-blue suit, light blue shirt and striped tie. A white handkerchief folded into triangular peaks peeps out of the top pocket.

Emeritus Professor Louis Waller AO
Banner image: Emeritus Professor Louis Waller AO Credit: Supplied.

Instead of moving behind the desk, the man walks out in front of it and, with a twinkle in his eye, he begins the lecture with:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

Some students glance at each other with raised eyebrows. Others sit transfixed as the lecturer continues Hamlet’s soliloquy until he comes to:

“The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns.”

He repeats the words and then says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, today we will consider the question: What is death? How can it be defined for the purpose of the law of homicide in an age of artificial nutrition and hydration?”

Melbourne Law School alumnus Emeritus Professor Louis Waller AO (LLB(Hons) ‘56) was a master of powerful oratory who kept thousands of law students spellbound at both the University of Melbourne and Monash University.

Louis’ death on 8 October, the eve of Yom Kippur, at the age of 84 was not unexpected, but to some extent it marks the end of an era, one in which a love of learning is to be celebrated and passed on.

Louis was born in the town of Siedlce in eastern Poland in 1935, the only son of Hilda and Jack who were Hasidic Jews. In January 1938, his parents fled with him to Melbourne after an aunt sponsored their journey. Many family members and friends who remained in Poland were killed in the Treblinka extermination camp during the Holocaust.

Those beginnings undoubtedly influenced Louis’ work in later years in using and reforming the law to benefit disadvantaged and marginalised people. He became the Foundation President of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, the Inaugural Chair of the Law Reform Commission of Victoria, the first Chair of the Australian Red Cross Society’s International Humanitarian Law Committee and a member of the Geneva Conventions Dissemination Committee.

Louis’ love of learning and appetite for reading began early. He attended Brighton Road State School, Elwood Central School and University High School. He received his LLB with Honours from MLS in 1956 and gained a scholarship to Oxford where he graduated with a Bachelor of Civil Law with First Class Honours. It was while he was studying in Oxford that he met his future wife Wendy. They were together for over 60 years and they had four children, Michael (who died aged three), Anthony, Ian and Elly.

After Oxford, Louis returned with Wendy to Australia. He spent six years at MLS, moving up the academic rungs to Senior Lecturer. There, he focused on developing the subjects Criminal Law and Introduction to Legal Method. With Professor of Jurisprudence Peter Brett, he put together Cases and Materials on Criminal Law, which became the seminal text for criminal law students over the ensuing decades. The subsequent editions were co-authored by Louis with Professor Charles Robert (Bob) Williams, while the 12th and 13th editions have carried on the tradition with updates by six authors.

In 1964, Louis was enticed by Professor David Derham to move to the newly-established Faculty of Law at Monash University. At the age of 29, he was appointed as the Sir Leo Cussen Professor of Law, a position he held for 36 years. At the age of 33, he became the Dean of the Faculty, a position he held for two years. What followed was a stellar career as a scholar, teacher and law reformer; a career which was marked by countless awards, including being appointed an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO).

Many will have their own stories of Louis’ influence and mentorship. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to work with him when I was appointed an assistant tutor at Monash University. He suggested I attend his lectures perhaps for a week or two, but they were so captivating I went to every one. We fell into the pattern of meeting in his office and wandering over to the Menzies Building together, discussing anything and everything on the way.

Even after his retirement, I still went to Louis for advice. The day before I was interviewed for the Louis Waller Chair of Law at Monash University, I popped into his office to ask him for any tips. “Just be yourself,” he said. “And wear a dark suit with a splash of red.” Suffice to say I followed his advice and was appointed to the Chair in his name.

Although Louis will no longer be able to tell tales from that “undiscovere’d country” where he now travels, his legacy will live on through his extended family and generations of those he taught and mentored throughout his illustrious life. Requiescat in pace.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 22, November 2019