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‘He wanted to be like Perry Mason’
Charles Ogletree, Merced native son and Harvard law professor, dies at 70
Charles Ogletree
Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree is shown speaking at UC Merced after receiving the university’s coveted Spendlove Prize (Photo courtesy of UC Merced).


Special to the Journal


Charles Ogletree, a Merced native who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the nation’s most prominent legal minds as a Harvard Law professor, has died at his home in Maryland after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. 

He was 70 years old. 

Ogletree, who at Harvard was a mentor to future President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, dedicated much of his life and career to advancing civil rights and racial justice.

Known by the nickname “Tree” to friends, his career included representing survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, serving as Professor Anita Hill’s attorney during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991, and authoring numerous books on human rights, race and class. 

UC Merced in 2006 awarded him the university’s inaugural Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance.

Ogletree’s younger sister Rosemarie Jacobs, 64, told CVJC his family had gathered this week in Maryland with his wife, Pamela, to be there during his final moments. Jacobs said Ogletree was unconscious, but she told him how much he was loved. 

“I just sat there next to his bed, talked to him and held his hand. I felt good being there with him,” she said in a phone interview with CVJC. 

The death has also shaken members of the Merced community, where Ogletree grew up. Adam Gray, a former member of the state Assembly, successfully spearheaded a campaign with the Merced NAACP and others to name the local Superior Court building in honor of Ogletree. 

Gray and the NAACP spent two years pushing for the legislation needed to bestow Ogletree’s name on the courthouse. The naming ceremony took place in February.

Gray, who had previously met Ogletree when the Harvard Law professor visited Merced, noted the courthouse now bears his name to “remind generations moving forward” of his many accomplishments.

“I am sad to hear the news (of his death) as I know so many are – but it's also an opportunity to reflect on a life well lived, an incredible life,” Gray told CVJC. 


Coming up in south Merced

Ogletree was born in 1952, the son of Charles Sr. and Willie Mae Ogletree. His family, including his grandparents, were migrant workers who picked figs and other agricultural crops for a living, according to a 2009 column he wrote for the Merced Sun-Star.

Jacobs, who now lives in Reno, Nev., said although she and her siblings came up “dirt poor,” they were instilled with pride and a strong work ethic. As a child, she said, she remembered helping Ogletree and her siblings roll up newspapers to deliver. 

Although the family lived in multiple locations, Jacobs said the family spent most of their time at a residence on Home Avenue, just southeast of Childs and West avenues. 

Her brother was inspired to become a lawyer by watching actor Raymond Burr play attorney “Perry Mason” on the television show of the same name, she recalled. 

“He said ‘I want to be just like Perry Mason one day,’” Jacobs said during the courthouse dedication in February. “I remember that so well. … He accomplished that, didn’t he?” 

Jacobs told CVJC her brother’s goals led him to be the first Black person to become student body president at Merced High School.

His commitment to academic excellence led him to earn a scholarship to attend Stanford University, where he was awarded bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He received his law degree from Harvard Law School.

In 2005, Ogletree was tapped to welcome the inaugural class of students to the new University of California campus in Merced.

He remarked about how positive connections made in his hometown encouraged him to succeed, saying “I know that I have made it this far because of the friendships that I have established over the years, and the many mentors right here in Merced who inspired me to take on every challenge to ensure success in life. I could not be where I am, nor could I imagine where I would be, if it had not been for the friends who have made such a remarkable impact on my life.”

Although Ogletree’s academic and legal career would take him to great heights, Jacobs said her brother never let go of his Merced roots. During visits to Merced, her brother would stop and play basketball at McNamara Park “with the guys,” she said.

“He never forgot where he came from.”  

Ogletree’s younger brother, Richard Ogletree, 66, expressed similar thoughts during the courthouse naming ceremony, saying his big brother was his “hero.”

Because of his illness, Charles Ogletree was unable to attend the February ceremony. Still, Richard said the event would have had a special place in his brother’s heart. 

“We come from humble, humble beginnings,” Richard said at the time. While Ogletree had many accomplishments, including teaching both Obamas while at Harvard Law School, Richard said, “I would say he would probably be more proud of this recognition, this award, than any other thing he’s received nationally or at an international level,” he said. “Because this is his hometown recognizing him, which is great.”

There are many testimonials about Ogletree’s selflessness, both in the classroom and courtroom.

Anita Hill told NPR that Ogletree never hesitated representing her, after she stepped forward to bring sexual harassment allegations against Thomas and noted that he was up for tenure at the time. 

"(He) was incredibly astute in being able to apply what he learned as a trial lawyer to a situation that really had no rules," she said. 

"By advocating on my behalf, Charles Ogletree showed that this quest for gender justice for an African American woman is the quest for racial justice. That meant a lot to me."

According to UC Merced Professor Nigel Hatton, Ogletree's papers, spanning his Harvard career as scholar, teacher, and legal theorist from 1985 to 2000, and comprising 500 boxes of letters, legal files, and academic course materials, were donated to Harvard Law School by his family last year.

In a 2017 tribute to Ogletree at Harvard, fellow law professor David Wilkins said, "When the history of Harvard Law School in the 20th century is written, Charles Ogletree will be among the first ones mentioned."

Many friends of Ogletree took to social media on Saturday to express their sadness over his death. 

Former President Obama and his wife released a joint statement Saturday, saying they are “heartbroken” over Ogletree’s death.

“He took time on weekends to run something called ‘Saturday School’ for Black students who didn’t necessarily have the support systems at home to get them through the difficult first years of law school. Eventually, Saturday School became so popular that students of every background began showing up to hear Charles explain things in a way they could understand. It was an example of the kind of person Charles has always been: unfailingly helpful and driven by a concern for others,” the statement said. 

“Over the years, Michelle and I have always been able to count on Charles’ support, often when we needed it the most.”  

Ogletree is survived by his wife, Pamela Barnes, a fellow Stanford graduate whom he married in 1975, according to his Harvard Law bio; their children Charles Ogletree III and Rashida Ogletree; and grandchildren Marquelle, Nia Mae, and Jamila Ogletree, as well as Makayla George.

Jacobs said a date has not yet been chosen for Ogletree’s funeral services. 

Victor A. Patton is the community engagement editor for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.