Maybe it was the way she frequently wore her hair, pulled back in a bun and tied down with a braid -- a serious schoolmarm style -- that let you know Jean Camper Cahn meant business.
Cahn and her husband, Edgar, were only 33 years old when they founded the Antioch School of Law in Washington in 1972, and you don't just up and start a law school, regardless of age, unless you mean business.
Their business was serving the poor, and at a memorial service yesterday for Jean Camper Cahn, who died last month at age 55, many of those who were privileged to work with her gathered to celebrate her committed life.
"She said to me, 'Hyman, let me make one thing clear,' " recalled Erias Hyman, now a senior administrative law judge who had served as the law school dean of students. "She said she could understand when people told her 'I can't' or 'I'd rather not.' But when it came to advocating justice, she would simply not tolerate anyone saying, 'I won't.' "
And she didn't.
The Cahns wanted their law students to understand why litigation involving poor people's complaints could not be put on the back burner, as was common among some lawyers. When she asked law students to go live with indigent clients, whose apartments often were infested with rodents and had no heat or hot water, they did as they were told.
Antioch was set up as a "clinical" law school, where students practiced in real courtrooms, just as medical students worked in real hospitals. There had never been a law school like this in the nation -- with an admissions policy that determined what kind of lawyer, rather than what kind of law student, an applicant was likely to make.
Then again, there had never been anyone like Jean Camper Cahn.
She was born in Baltimore, the youngest of four girls and two boys. Jean Camper modeled herself after her father, John Emory Toussaint Camper, a man with no tolerance for racial injustice.
Her father had participated in civil rights marches with Adam Clayton Powell and Paul Robeson, who was Jean's godfather. But the occurrence that seemed to fuel her fiery spirit more than any other, according to her mother, Florine Camper, was what had happened to her brother, John Jr. He had contracted a serious ear infection when they were children, but was refused admission to Johns Hopkins University Hospital because he was black.
"It was a serious racial mistake," Florine Camper said.
Their father begged to have his son admitted to the hospital. Authorities eventually admitted the boy, but the infection had spread during the delay.
"They ended up having to cut out part of his brain," Edgar Cahn said. "That had a profound effect on Jean. John Jr. was her playmate, and what happened to him caused her a lot of pain and anger."
Jean Camper came to view racism and poverty as anathema. After graduating from Swarthmore College and Yale University Law School, she earned a reputation as a firebrand legal services lawyer in New Haven, Conn. She brought that same passion for justice to Washington in 1963 and became a legal adviser to the Office on Economic Development.
In 1968, in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she founded the Urban Law Institute at George Washington University. But she wanted to do more than provide traditional legal representation for the poor.
"We believed that a legal education, which was morally neutral on social issues, was unacceptable," said Edgar Cahn, who married Jean Camper in 1957. "We wanted a place that trained activists."
They founded Antioch School of Law, which was reincarnated in 1988 as the D.C. School of Law.
Until her death from cancer on Jan. 2, Jean Camper Cahn had shown contempt for silence in the face of injustice. In one of her last cases, argued in a federal district court in Florida, a decision handed down a week before her death upheld her contention that money distributed under the Older Americans Act must be aimed at benefiting those in greatest need.
"She was like a Gatling gun in delivering her closing arguments," recalled her oldest of two sons, Jonathan, 33, who served as co-counsel in the case along with her husband.
Camper Cahn had come to believe in a new set of rights for children and the elderly: the rights to become productive and to avoid obsolescence.
She knew that she would not live to see the battle won. But to her everlasting credit, Camper Cahn had helped create a school for advocates of justice to carry on her good fight.