125 Stanford Stories

NO. 113
Looking Back

Harry Rathbun’s lecture

Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor gives the inaugural "Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life" in Memorial Church in 2008.
Rod Searcey/Stanford News Service
Sandra Day O’Connor
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was Rathbun's student at Stanford, and she said he influenced her to follow a career in law and in public service.
Rod Searcey/Stanford News Service
The Dalai Lama gave "Harry's Last Lecture" in 2010.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
Students and other members of the Stanford community await the 2015 lecture by Oprah Winfrey.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
Winfrey told the crowd that a spiritual practice is foundational to a meaningful life. "Open your heart and quietly to yourself say the only prayer that’s ever needed: Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said. “You’re still here. You get another chance this day to do better and be better, another chance to become more of who you were created and what you’re created to fulfill."
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
Audience members rush the stage at the end of Winfrey's lecture to take selfies with her.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Annual event honors Stanford professor who extolled the meaningful life

Law Professor Harry Rathbun and his wife, Emelia.
Law Professor Harry Rathbun and his wife, Emelia.

Harry Rathbun, ’16, Eng. ’20, JD ’29, taught business law at Stanford. Yet his true subject was the cultivation of human potential.

Students and others flocked to his Palo Alto home for his Sunday-night seminars to plumb humanity’s mission. His final class lecture of each Stanford term was famous for asking the questions, “Who are we? Where are we going?”

Since 2008, Stanford’s Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life, formerly known as “Harry’s Last Lecture,” has challenged new generations of Stanford students with those questions. The event is a program of Stanford’s Office of Religious Life.

 I had to tell those kids that the meaning of life was up to them, that no teacher and no school and nobody else could hand it to them like a diploma.

–Harry Rathbun

Distinguished Rathbun Visiting Fellows extol the moral dimension of learning through the annual lecture and other engagement with the Stanford community. They share their reflections on life’s purpose. They perpetuate the goals of Stanford University’s founders by urging students to use their educations for good.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will deliver the 2017 lecture Feb. 6 in Stanford Memorial Church.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will deliver the 2017 lecture Feb. 6 in Stanford Memorial Church.

The next Rathbun Visiting Fellow is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will speak to the Stanford community Feb. 6, 2017 in Memorial Church.

Sandra Day [O’Connor], 50, LLB ’52, later the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice, gave the inaugural Rathbun Lecture in 2008. As a student, O’Connor had been profoundly influenced by Rathbun’s words.

Upon receiving her law degree at a time when female lawyers were few, O’Connor could not get a job in a private firm except as a secretary. But she remembered Rathbun’s teaching as she tailored her job search to the public sector. She became a deputy county attorney and from there moved to a judgeship and eventually to her pioneering role on the high court.

[Rathbun] was the first person ever to speak in my presence of how an individual could make a difference; how a single caring person can effectively help determine the course of events. I had not heard that before, really, and he put it forward in such a persuasive way that I think most of us came to believe it might be true, and to take seriously the notion that we could make a difference.

— Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking in 2003

Other Rathbun Fellows have included Oprah Winfrey, who gave the lecture in 2015; Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau, who spoke in 2014; and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who spoke in 2010.

Learn more about Harry Rathbun and his enduring impact on Stanford and beyond.

Watch past lectures on video.

Browse other programs of Stanford’s Office of Religious Life.