Rathbun Visiting Fellow

“Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life”

A poignant letter in The Stanford Daily sparked the tradition.

Harry Rathbun

In February 1931, Harry Rathbun, ’16, ENG ’20, JD ’29, met Emilia Juana Lindeman. He married her on August 17, 1931 in Memorial Church. Photo courtesy of the Rathbun family.

Harry Rathbun, BA ’16, ENG ’20, LLB ’29, a Stanford Law School professor in the 1930s through the 1950s, was reading the school paper one day and was struck by a letter written by a graduating student. The student wrote that he feared venturing into a world he didn’t quite understand. Professor Rathbun later recalled, “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.”

With that, he decided to devote the last lecture of his business law class that spring term to a discussion on the meaning of life. An annual tradition was born and over the next three decades “Harry’s Last Lecture” grew so popular that it had to be held in Memorial Auditorium to handle the crowds which turned up to hear it. When Professor Rathbun retired from teaching in 1959, so did the annual lecture, until it was revived in 2008 with the inaugural lecture by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Thanks to a significant gift to the Office for Religious Life by the Foundation for Global Community, the lecture has returned to inspire current generations of Stanford students. The fund was named the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life and supports activities intended to encourage self-reflection and moral inquiry. The Rathbun Visiting Fellow program is its centerpiece.

2015 Rathbun Visiting Fellow

Oprah Winfrey to deliver annual Stanford lecture on a meaningful life

14935-rathbun_OPRAHMarch 11, 2015, Stanford Report

Oprah Winfrey, a global media leader, philanthropist, producer and actress, will offer her personal reflections on life when she delivers “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life” at 7 p.m. Monday, April 20, in Stanford Memorial Church.

The lecture honors the late Stanford Law School Professor Harry Rathbun, who delivered his renowned “Last Lecture” annually from the 1930s through the 1950s. Continue reading…

Past Rathbun Visiting Fellows

Sandra Day O'Connor

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (Retired), April 2008

George Shultz

The Honorable George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State, Treasury, and Labor, May 2009

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, October 2010

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman, Founder of The Children’s Defense Fund, November 2011

Garry Trudeau, credit: Ali Goldstein

Garry B. Trudeau, Doonesbury creator, April 2014


Related articles

“Gift to Religious Life endows new fund,” Stanford Report, January 23, 2007

Stanford Daily’s Editorial Board applauds Rathbun Visiting Fellow program and thanks the Foundation for Global Community, The Stanford Daily, May 22, 2009