John Mixon’s passion for the law and his more than 60 years of dedicated service to the University of Houston started with a seersucker suit and an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“During my undergraduate years at Stephen F. Austin, I worked (as a clerk-typist at the Hoya) abstract office in Nacogdoches. It was there that I saw local lawyers and decided I wanted to be one,” said Mixon, who at 83 can still recall the hardships of growing up in Texas in the shadows of the Great Depression.
“One of the things that struck me was how crisp and neat they looked in their seersucker suits, so I started wanting a seersucker suit when I was about 17 years old,” Mixon continued. “I also wanted to get away from my family’s farm near Cushing and East Texas.”
Two years later, in 1952, Mixon packed his belongings and headed to Houston. He had been accepted into UH’s fledgling law school, one that had started in 1947 with a dean, one faculty member and 66 students.
“A.A. White was dean of the law school then. He was a marvelous man, a spectacular dean who built the law school from scratch,” Mixon said, recalling how he attended classes in the basement of the M.D. Anderson Library. The library was one of the few buildings on campus at the time.
“The basement was paved with pink asbestos tile,” Mixon said, speaking slowly and softly. “You could tell the law students by looking at the legs of their pants, because that pink dust would crawl up halfway to their knees just by walking. We didn’t know at the time that the asbestos could kill you.”
Mixon’s collegiate years were hectic. He spent his days attending classes with his fellow students Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, now one of the nation’s top litigators, and Charles Runnels, now chancellor emeritus of Pepperdine University. The work was grueling but prepared him for the next chapter of his life, which came in 1955 when Mixon was presented with an unexpected opportunity.
“One of the law professors left the University to take another job, and Dean White asked me, ‘If I can get you a deferment from the Army, would you teach a year?’ I don’t know why it took me all night to decide,” Mixon said jokingly. “The next morning, I said ‘yes’.”
With that one word, Mixon launched a stellar career that included the publication of two books—“Texas Municipal Zoning Law” and “Principles for Local Environmental Management”—and dozens of monographs, articles and book reviews. He also taught about 7,500 UH students and participated on numerous committees.
Off campus, Mixon served as visiting professor at Northwestern University, Hofstra University, the University of San Diego and Southern Methodist University. And for more than 20 years, he was a lecturer at Rice University School of Architecture.
But in the fall of 1955, when Mixon taught his first class—property law—he was anxious and nervous, lecturing 30 young men. He was only 22 years old and had passed the Texas Bar exam just a few months earlier. Despite his inexperience, Mixon taught three additional courses that year: conflicts, constitutional and administrative law and corporations.
Soon, Mixon’s views of the law—views he later shared with his colleagues at UH—evolved after enrolling into Yale University, where he received a Master’s of Law degree in 1962.
“I thought that the law school should conduct serious policy research, that we should not just accept laws, but we should determine what laws do, whether they are good or bad, whether they make society better or worse,” Mixon said. “Take for example, segregation. It was written into the statutes, but it didn’t bear up to scrutiny. Whereas, the traditional view of a law school was that laws were given by the authorities. Our task is simply to find out what the law is and to apply it.”
Mixon and his fellow colleagues who supported his ideas were met with resistance, he recalled. Gradually, though, the UH Law Center “changed into a modern, respectable school,” Mixon said, noting with pleasure the Law Center’s most recent ranking. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Law Center in the Top 50 among the nation’s law schools.
The Law Center’s success is due, in large part, to such outstanding professors as Mixon, whose particular teaching style is legendary and dates to his years as a law student at UH.
Back then, Mixon drew cartoon figures in the margins of his textbooks that “visually prompted me with the facts and holding of a case,” he noted. As an instructor, Mixon continued the habit, doodling figures in his notebook to jog his memory about the points he needed to make during his lectures.
In the 1970s, at his students’ urging, he began posting the cartoons on blackboards for his classes. The drawings were a hit, and so was his teaching, which earned him numerous accolades. In 1974, Mixon received a UH Teaching Excellence Award. The Order of Barons, an honors organization, named him professor of the year in 1980, 1985, 1994, 1995 and 2002.
The University’s Student Bar Association also honored Mixon, selecting him as outstanding professor of the year for 1988, 1989 and 1990. It wasn’t just his students, though, who valued his instruction. The UH Law Center also honored him, creating the John Mixon Chair in Law.
Alumna and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who taught at the UH Law Center from 1978 to 1983, also paid tribute to Mixon. She credited her success as a professor to his mentorship in an article published in the University of Houston Magazine spring 2013 edition.
Mixon, no doubt, inspired countless Cougars before his service to UH came to an end. He retired as law alumni professor in 2013 after suffering from a transient ischemic attack a few years earlier.
Mixon’s lengthy tenure at the Law Center and his numerous contributions did not go unnoticed. UH awarded him the professor emeritus title in 2013. During his final years at UH, Mixon wrote “The Autobiography of a Law School: Stories, Memories and Interpretations of My Sixty Years at The University of Houston Law Center,” at the request of then dean Raymond Nimmer.
Now, Mixon enjoys the quiet life. He and his wife of more than 30 years have traveled to Africa, China, Japan, South America and Europe. They have also racked up more than 300,000 miles driving to cities across the United States with their dogs.
Mixon also enjoys spending time with his blended family of three and his granddaughter, who, following in his footsteps, graduated with a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.
And yes, Mixon wrote in the “Autobiography of a Law Center,” that in the late 1990s or early 2000s, he purchased his first and only seersucker suit.
“I saw a blue and white striped seersucker suit on sale at the Gap. I bought it and hung it in a closet,” Mixon wrote. “When I thought about wearing it one day, I put it on and looked in the mirror. Somehow, it did not look the same as it did on those dapper Nacogdoches lawyers. I looked more like an ice cream vendor.”
Mixon, he wrote, hung the suit back in his closet as “reminder of a journey that began in an East Texas county seat some 60 years ago.”