The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is preparing to host its fifth annual Gold ’n Gavel Auction and Reception on Nov. 17. In addition to raising funds for student scholarships and celebrating the legal community, the annual gala will pay tribute to 50 distinguished alumni from throughout ASU Law’s history.
As the university goes into ASU Homecoming weekend, alumni from classes celebrating their 10th, 20th, 30th and 40th anniversaries will be celebrating their reunions. Here ASU Law chats with the honorees chosen from those classes to take a look back at their time at the college.
Daniel Ortega, class of 1977: Practicing law in Arizona for the past 40 years, Ortega is a personal-injury lawyer, primarily concentrating on serious personal injury and wrongful-death cases.
Alex Vakula, class of 1987: Practicing law in Arizona for the past 30 years, Vakula’s Prescott-based Vakula Law Firm focuses on the areas of real estate, financing, business and investment matters.
Jason White, class of 1997: A partner in the Finance Group of New York-based Shearman & Sterling, White advises banks and other financial institutions on leveraged and investment grade acquisition financings, workouts, divestitures and restructurings.
Melissa Bengtson, class of 2007: A partner with DLA Piper in Phoenix, Bengtson focuses her practice in the areas of corporate and securities law, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate finance transactions.
‘A tremendous honor’
This year’s honorees were moved by the recognition, expressing both humility and disbelief.
“I feel like a huge mistake has been made, and my only hope is that they don’t figure it out before I get to go to the event,” White said with a chuckle. “There are about 100 people who should be getting this ahead of me, and I’m just afraid they’re going to hear I’m getting this award and they’re going to be like, ‘What?!’ So, my good luck about the mistake. You can’t take it back. It’s a tremendous honor, and it’s humbling, and it’s gratifying.”
Since graduating from ASU Law in 1977, Ortega, who has lived in Phoenix nearly all of his life, has focused on giving back to the community.
“I would hope that I have made this place — this city, this state — a better place,” he said. “In some way or fashion, a great degree of my activity has been focused on improving the lives of everyone, but in particular with the Latino community. And if I am to serve as an example for others, I want it to be that they help people. That they learn how important it is to give back. Because, as lawyers, we’ve not only been placed in positions of leadership, but have the obligation to give back as much as we gain.”
Ortega said he takes a great deal of pride in being recognized, but also feels a bit awkward about it.
“I’m appreciative, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But it’s awkward because the things that I’ve done for the law school and for my community have been from the heart. Because of the plentifulness of my life and the things I’ve been able to do as a lawyer, I give selflessly and never expect anything in return. And when something like that occurs, it’s kind of like, well, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it. This isn’t why I did it. But if there’s some love to share, I’m willing to take it.’”
Vakula, like White, isn’t sure the committee got the right person from his class — but he’ll gladly accept the honor.
“Not too bad for a B student,” he said. “I had so many intelligent, talented and successful people in my class. I’m quite honored to be in their company.”
Lasting memories of ASU Law
With their graduating classes celebrating milestone anniversaries, the honorees reflected on their experiences as ASU Law students — and their shared disbelief about how much time has transpired.
“Damn, it’s been that long?” said Ortega, when asked to reflect on the class of ’77’s 40th anniversary. “That’s my first thought. Second of all, I didn’t fathom that I would be still practicing law 40 years later.”
“It’s painful to think about,” said White about his 20th anniversary. “I just don’t like to think that I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years. I still pretend that I’m a younger man than I am.”
Ten years further removed, Vakula can’t believe his class is celebrating its 30th anniversary. “That has to be a typographical mistake,” he said. “I am way too young for a 30th.”
The life-altering experience of law school, often coinciding with a transition into full adulthood, makes a lasting impression. Memories of relationships, the academic rigors and even the pop culture of the time are vivid, almost perfectly preserved in the mind.
“I have fond memories of going to The Dash Inn and watching MTV, the newest video craze,” Vakula said. “I also really appreciated the more social professors, Berch and Rose, who made the first year a little less scary. Great memories and so many outstanding professors.”
Ortega recalls a demanding period in his life, but one that yielded so many benefits.
“The thing that comes to mind first is the misery of having to study long hours, and having to spend so much time at the law school,” he said. “But truly the biggest memories are all of the friendships that we made, all of the activities that we were involved in.”
Indeed, the shared journey of law school, and all of the intensity and academic pressure that entails, creates a special bond, forging friendships that last a lifetime.
“Law school, generally, is a time of not just learning, but kind of transformation, and it was certainly that way for me,” White said. “I got to meet people who influenced me profoundly, and they still do. It’s a really intense period where you’re studying all the time, and you form sort of small groups of students, and that’s just a very intense period. And those are my memories. You know, going into Armstrong Hall, and you’d go in on a Saturday morning at 9, and you’d come out early evening. And the friends I made when I was doing it. And not just friends among students, but also among the faculty.”
A special occasion
Coinciding with ASU Law’s 50th anniversary, this year’s Gold ’n Gavel event takes on added meaning.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized at all, and it’s an incredible honor to be recognized on the 50th anniversary of the law school,” White said. “And that coincides with my own 20-year anniversary, so it’s an alignment that’s pretty cool, actually.”
This year’s honorees have all maintained close ties with ASU Law through the years. In addition to social and business interactions with former classmates, they have spoken at the school, helped students and stayed in touch with the administration.
“Every dean that has been there since I left, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and meet with on a variety of projects,” Ortega said. “We’re talking 40 years now.”
Vakula has worked closely with ASU Law in his current position as president of the State Bar of Arizona, and even though he now lives in Prescott, he’s been to the law school’s new home — the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix — a half-dozen times.
White, who has been on the East Coast for 17 years, has yet to experience the Beus Center. So Gold ’n Gavel weekend will double as a long-awaited homecoming.
“I’m excited to see the new school,” he said. “I still haven’t been on campus. I think of ASU Law as an indelible part of the main campus, right off Rural Road, and I can’t picture it anywhere else. I’ve seen photographs of the new building, and it looks incredible. I’ve heard from Dean Sylvester that we’ve had more law firm and court events at ASU Law in the first year of its opening than in the entire 49-year history of the law school over at the Tempe location. So it’s obviously just incredible. But I need to walk around and see it and feel it before I can believe that the law school is anywhere other than Tempe.”
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