A Brilliant Friend: The Legacy of Butch Nepon
Law professor’s gift continues to help students after more than 20 years
Once upon a time there was a law professor who was beloved by students, colleagues and Faculty of Law alumni alike. His name was Matthew Bernard Nepon, and he was a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law, class of 1967. Everyone called him “Butch.” He never had children, but for the past two decades, law students at his alma mater have continued to benefit from his legacy, whether they knew it or not. Now that family members who remember their ‘Uncle Butch’ are getting older, they thought it important to share the story of the extraordinary man behind the Butch Nepon Memorial Bursary.
Each August, law students who fill out the University of Manitoba’s general bursary application form through their Aurora Student accounts (the deadline for which is October 1), are automatically considered for the Butch Nepon Memorial Bursary. The Terms of Reference for the Bursary state that to be eligible, law students must be registered for and complete at least 60 per cent of a full course load over the regular academic season in both Fall and Winter terms. Continuing University of Manitoba students must earn at least a 2.0 GPA. Financial need must be clearly documented on the application.
Currently valued at over $1.8 million, the Bursary has supported a significant number of law students each year since it started disbursing support to students in 2006. To date, nearly $900,000 has helped law students get through their studies. The story of Nepon’s legacy at the Faculty of Law as both a former student and professor is one that should not be forgotten.
“Brilliant” was a word frequently used to describe Nepon by his professors, colleagues and students. In an interview in the Manitoba Law Journal’s special issue on The Great Transition in Legal Education in Manitoba(39:1), Professor Emeritus Cameron Harvey, who started teaching at the Faculty in 1966, remembered Nepon as a student in his Administrative Law class, which Nepon later taught himself, along with Constitutional Law. Harvey described his former student as “the most brilliant law student I have ever taught” (at page 114).
“He did not participate in class, but he would get to the exam, start writing, and write continuously for the whole exam,” Harvey recalled. “The remarkable thing was: he would not only answer the question in terms of the law, he would answer the question in terms of sociology, or political science, or whatever other area may be involved in the answer. It would be a complete answer and it all just came flowing out of his head. He never thought about it, never made any notes. He never had to structure an answer. It was just a stunningly amazing performance.”
This brilliance as a student garnered many awards for Nepon, who won 15 prizes throughout his law school career, and was a top student in each of his three years at the Faculty of Law. His proud family had a notice regarding a particular achievement of his published in a local newspaper. It was June of 1967, and Nepon had just won the Canadian Bar Association’s $5,000 Viscount Bennett Scholarship. According to the announcement, this was the first time the entire amount was awarded to one student, whereas in previous years, it was divided between two different graduating law students. The news story also reports that Nepon was the Gold Medalist for Law in his year, and that he had won so many awards that he actually had to surrender two of them. Finally, the story reveals that Nepon was articling at the law firm of Walsh, Micay & Co., and would use the CBA scholarship to pursue post-graduate Law studies at Yale University.
That he did, was then called to the Manitoba bar in 1968, and returned to Manitoba to teach at the Faculty of Law in 1969 where he remained as a professor until his untimely passing in 1998.
When they became colleagues on the Faculty, Harvey described Nepon as a creative thinker. “He would come into my office and run things by me and I would just marvel. It is like watching a hockey player or a soccer player doing something and you think, “How the hell did he do that?” He did not even want any feedback; he just wanted someone to bounce ideas off of.”
You could fool Butch Nepon none of the time. He could see through pretentiousness and cant no matter how artfully disguised. His stories and quips were his way of turning the pain of awareness – including self-awareness – into transcendent moments of joy. – Dr. Bryan Schwartz, Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba
Dr. Bryan Schwartz was a young professor on his first teaching job with a PhD fresh from Yale University when he joined the Faculty of Law in 1981 and met Nepon for the first time. They hit it off from the start and formed a close bond that lasted until Nepon’s death. What stayed with Schwartz for years was the memory of Butch’s phenomenal sense of humour. “It was sardonic and absurdist,” said Schwartz. “Think Groucho Marx with a Yale law degree. Butch shared it with his students, but above all, with his closest friend. You could fool Butch Nepon none of the time. He could see through pretentiousness and cant no matter how artfully disguised. His stories and quips were his way of turning the pain of awareness – including self-awareness – into transcendent moments of joy.”
In addition to being a talented singer who loved an audience and did musical theatre in university, Nepon had many talents in both the classroom and courtroom, Schwartz pointed out. “[H]e not only made meritorious contributions to each of academic teaching and practice, but brought the best of each world to the other,” said Schwartz. “His teaching [was] informed and enriched by his extensive practical experience; and his academic reflection and skill at conveying his ideas enabled him to make crucial contributions to some of the most important public law cases in the modern history of Manitoba.”
Schwartz revealed that as a student, awards Nepon won, in addition to the Gold Medal and the CBA award, included the Alexander Morris Exhibition and the Law Society’s Margaret Hypathia Crawford Award. Schwartz clarified that while Nepon practiced law with Walsh Micay after being called to the bar in 1968, he began teaching full-time in 1970. “He established an exceptional record of teaching excellence, longevity and breadth of subject matters in the public law area,” said Schwartz. “It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the practising bar benefitted from his public law teaching. His teaching [was] marked by both academic sharpness and an intense sense of practicality; he always encouraged students to consider the doctrinal subtleties of the issue in the context of helping a real client with a real problem.”
Schwartz described the many public law cases in which Nepon played an important role in the preparation and presentation of arguments, many of which went before the Supreme Court of Canada and the Manitoba Court of Appeal, which had lasting impact on Canadian public law. Some SCC cases he worked on included language rights and hunting, fishing and trapping rights of Indigenous peoples.
Nepon was a frequent legal consultant to the Government of Manitoba, and acted pro bono as a resource for Legal Aid Manitoba’s Public Interest Law Centre. Specifically, he contributed to making new law concerning minority language rights and procedure in public inquiries in the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.
Finally, Schwartz described Nepon as “a teacher and practitioner whose intellect, learning, integrity and kindness [were] widely known and appreciated.”
When Nepon’s brother-in-law, Sidney Halpern, who was married to Butch’s sister Esther, recently went through family files, he was struck by how focused they were on the Indian Act and Métis land claims matters.
“He was brilliant,” said Halpern in an email to University of Manitoba staff. “He had health issues which led to [his] premature passing and he felt so grateful to the Faculty of Law for enabling his functioning with the health issues and to his students who helped him lead a truly meaningful life. They were his family support.”
Among his students, Nepon was known as “The Chocolate Professor”, and was fondly remembered for handing out chocolate bars during exams to give them an “energy boost.” His family described him as an “innately gentle, kind man who loved people.”
Nepon loved teaching and the faculty so much that he wanted to continue supporting them after he was gone. He did so by donating a substantial gift to the University of Manitoba to create the Butch Nepon Memorial Bursary. This bursary has allowed students the financial support to pursue a degree in the Faculty of Law for more than 20 years, and will continue to do so for many more years to come.
UM is saddened to learn of the recent passing of Esther Halpern, Butch Nepon’s sister. Gifts made in memory of Butch or Esther to the Butch Nepon Memorial Bursary will benefit students in the Faculty of Law in perpetuity.