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MSU College of Law

Something’s Coming… Mario Ceresa Reflects on Career and Retirement

By Gwenn Bashara Samuel 

The moving van was pulling away from his new home in Jupiter, Fla., and Professor Mario A. Ceresa was contemplating his recent retirement after 30 years at the Law College. As professor and library director, he had a full and distinguished career at MSU-DCL, teaching Comparative Law, International Human Rights, International Civil Litigation in the U.S. Courts, and International Criminal Law.

But unknown to the hundreds of students who walked into his classroom, and unknown to even dozens of his co-workers, MSU-DCL was his second career, the result of a career change not prompted by simple boredom or a self-indulgent “career plateau” but caused by Fidel Castro, military rule, and complete social turmoil.

His original home was in Puerto Padre in eastern Cuba. He spent the first 12 years of his life in a classic Mediterranean-style home with a private façade on the street and a beautiful interior courtyard. The household consisted of his grandfather, a retired doctor and cattle baron; his grandmother, who observed all of the religious holidays; an aunt and an uncle; and the family servants. His father was an international businessman, who took a job in Ethiopia shortly before Mussolini invaded. Professor Ceresa was not to see him until the end of World War II.

At the age of 12, he was sent for six years to a Jesuit boarding school in Havana, where he was schooled in everything from art, history, and literature, to penmanship. He attended the University of Havana Law School for five years, the first two in a pre-law course and the last three in Havana’s law school with a European orientation and little emphasis on case law. Classes were lectures and did not employ the Socratic method, except for a few courses taught by American professors from Miami.

He finished sixth in his class and received a coveted award as a public defender in the Court of Appeals. Within two weeks of his graduation, the university was closed by the Batista government because it viewed the school as a focus of student rebellion and protest. Professor Ceresa spent the next two years as a public defender in his home province and was offered further appointment after that.

“I still was allowed to have my own clients,” he says, “but as the years passed, it became more and more difficult as a practicing attorney to stay out of the revolution.”

The only alternative was to leave the country, but as soon as he applied for a visa, he was fired. After an 18-month wait, the visa was granted. He was allowed to leave the country with his wife and children, but had to leave everything else behind. He has

not been back to Cuba since that night in 1967 when he stood on the beach to catch TWA’s midnight flight.

He chose to live in Ann Arbor because he had family there. With five children (the sixth was born after his arrival), he was anxious to start working immediately, and for six months he worked at the Willow Run assembly plant. Then he was offered a job at the University of Michigan Law Library with the proviso that he enter the master’s program in library science. He received the degree in 1970 with the intention of becoming a Latin American reference librarian, but Charles King, Dean of the Detroit College of Law, asked him to become head librarian, as well as to teach law.

For the next three decades, he was to balance his two great passions: the library as the heart and soul of the Law College, and teaching international law. He oversaw the construction of a major addition to the library. Never content with the status quo, less than 10 years later, when the computers were still considered optional, he learned DOS and installed a coaxial cable network, creating a staff network and setting up a student-use computer lab.

“The ABA standards ask us to be a responsive and active force within the educational life of the law school,” he notes, “and the only way we can do that is if the law students take precedence.”

He capped his career by overseeing the construction of a new library and moving the Law College library from Detroit to East Lansing.

Although still brimming with ideas for the school that he served so well for almost 30 years, Mario Ceresa is now enjoying his retirement. His plans now center around his family. “I have a lot of beds. That is so all of my grandchildren and all of my friends can come and visit,” he says. “The invitation extends to everyone I know. And I plan to return to Michigan frequently, because I have grandchildren there, and I love to spend time with them.”

His retirement move to Florida is like a homecoming. “The ocean is across the street. I am closer to the ocean now than I was in Cuba,” he says with a smile. “I look out my window and see palm trees in my back yard. I am close to Mother Nature and close to civilization. I see boats sailing by. I will visit with my son who lives nearby with some of my grandchildren.”

He will keep track of his native Cuba, but he most likely will not participate actively in any programs in that direction. His wife is from Venezuela, and he is watching the turmoil in that country carefully before deciding if they will go to visit her family there.

After such a long and varied career, will retirement hold anything more? He smiles and answers:

“Wait and see.”

Amicus magazine: Feature (Winter 2000, pp. 4-5) PDF »

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