C. Evan Stewart: Righting Historical Wrongs, Uncovering Truths

It took twenty years for C. Evan Stewart, A.B. ’74, J.D. ’77, to fulfill a promise to his Cornell Law School professor. Now, with the publication of his first book, Stewart says he is “righting a historical wrong.” And he’s done it with courage, perseverance, integrity, passionate curiosity, and an un – wavering commitment to his alma mater. These are also the qualities that have defined Stewart’s approach to practicing, interpreting, and teaching the law—with a fervent desire to right wrongs, correct misimpressions, and uncover truths.

Now, with the publication of his first book, Stewart says he is “righting a historical wrong.” And he’s done it with courage, perseverance, integrity, passionate curiosity, and an unwavering commitment to his alma mater. 

One of those truths is the story behind Myron Taylor Hall at Cornell and the man for which it’s named. If one assumes it is so named because Taylor was a great philanthropist, one would be (partly) right. Taylor, who earned his law degree from Cornell in 1894 and went on to amass a fortune in industry, gifted $1.5 million in 1928 to construct a new law school. He was also a University trustee. But Taylor’s impact went far beyond Ithaca. It spanned the globe. Taylor changed the world. And few people know about it.

In his book Myron Taylor, The Man Nobody Knew, Stewart dives deep beneath “the tip of the iceberg” into the murky waters of geopolitical history in the 1940s and brings clarity to enigmatic decisions made by historical figures from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Winston Churchill to the Pope. But the book was not his idea. Stewart’s law professor W. David Curtiss had begun the research in the 1990s, but fell ill. “He recognized that he could never finish what he had started,” Stewart says. So, Curtis tapped one of his former students whom he trusted to finish the job. “Dave Curtiss was the sweetest, kindest, most loving law professor. I was honored, and I felt a great responsibility—to him, to Cornell, and to the historical record.”

Stewart is a fourth generation Cornellian, dating back to his great grandparents. His great grandmother, Jessie Boulton Thorp, undregraduate Class of 1883, was among Cornell’s first female students. She married a fellow student. Four of their children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren (including Evan) followed them to Cornell. “It has been an incredible privilege to have studied under some of the world’s finest historians and eminent scholars, like the legendary Walter F. LaFeber and Joel H. Silbey.”

Stewart’s love of history and “getting to the truth” were driving forces over the twenty years he worked on the Myron Taylor book (in addition to his day job as a litigator advising clients on a range of complex commercial matters; he is a partner at Cohen & Gresser.) Stewart’s determination to get all the facts took him well beyond Cornell’s own archives to the F.D.R. Presidential Library, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, Baker Library at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the Vatican.

The book itself is not only a testament to Taylor, who ran the world’s largest industrial company, U.S. Steel, keeping workers employed through the Great Depression and recognizing (even welcoming) organized labor; answered the call of his president (FDR) to become an ambassador/diplomat; was FDR’s personal representative to Pope Pius XII and the first to bring documented proof of the Holocaust to the Pope; and was a key player in presidential decisions involving millions of displaced refugees and the politics of the Middle East. The book is also a testament to the way Stewart works. “It was like being on an archeological dig,” says Stewart. “Putting the puzzle pieces together from the different archives. That’s really fun.”

Stewart’s meticulous approach to research and writing is mirrored in his approach to the practice of law and teaching— the commitment of energy and countless hours. “There’s just no substitute for hard work,” he says. For fifteen years, Stewart has taught undergraduates interested in going to law school in the Cornell University Prelaw Program, a summer intensive including a four-credit course in the American legal system, an internship, and a chance to explore New York City.

Stewart takes them through an actual trial (“soup to nuts”), and teaches the Socratic method to get them to think on their feet. “It’s like learning a foreign language and new ways to think. Nothing from their life experience has prepared them for this. Three weeks of reading, reading, reading; preparing, preparing, preparing. The first week they’re subjected to the Socratic dialogue, they’re absolutely terrified. In the second week, they get the hang of it. By the third week, they’re doing battle with me.”

He encourages his students to keep in touch, and they do. “I just wanted to thank you again for teaching such an amazing class,” wrote one student last summer. “I can say with metaphysical certitude that I want to pursue a career in law and these past three weeks have given me the reassurance I needed.”

Stewart is not just demanding; he’s entertaining. He shares stories of his early days as a young lawyer when he was “bright eyed and bushy tailed,” intimidated and unsure of himself. He relays the story in which he was asked by a partner to research a regulation created by the Federal Reserve and prove its relevance to a case. Stewart did his work but could not come up with the answer the partner was seeking. When he told the partner his findings, “He looked at me as if I was the dumbest person he had ever encountered.”

“I’m a big movie buff, and draw from movies like The Godfather to teach them about life in law firms, something most law school professors haven’t experienced,” says Stewart. “My stories teach them about vulnerability, that they won’t always be right, they will encounter bad judgments.” He also tells them why lawyers must reach for the highest of ethical standards.

Stewart is a nationally renowned expert on legal ethics. It is the focus of dozens of articles he’s written for the New York State Bar Business Law Journal that its editor, David Glass, says are “invariably thoughtful, practical, clear, and well written. Our journal has been cited by members as the single best benefit of joining the NYSBA Business Law Section. If I had to name the single most important reason for that, it would be Evan’s steadfast and brilliant advice on ethics conveyed through his articles.”

In 2016, Stewart received the prestigious Sanford D. Levy Award from the Ethics Committee of the New York State Bar Association for his outstanding contributions to the advancement of professional ethics. With grabbing titles like “Thus Spake Zarathustra (and Other Cautionary Tales for Lawyers)” and “Born Under a Bad Sign?” (a 1967 hit blues song) and clever cartoons (drawn by the author himself), Stewart illustrates the lessons of history and the missteps of lawyers and judges so that others might learn and do better.

“Evan is extraordinarily attentive to aggressively represent his clients in the most ethical way,” says friend and colleague Charles Matays , A.B. ‘68, J.D. ‘71. “Intellectual integrity defines Evan Stewart. If the whole profession functioned the way Evan functions, we wouldn’t have so many lawyer jokes!”

“Evan is one of the finest human beings I know. He’s a gentleman and a scholar with an incredible understanding of people and the law,” says Josephine Linden, who worked with Stewart, and was once represented by him. “Evan is dedicated to the law as a pure subject of what’s good about mankind.”

At age five, Stewart says he wanted to be a lawyer and a cartoonist. He met those aspirations, constantly trying “to live up to my own standards.”