When he was graduated from Yale in 1932, Gerhard A. Gesell was still undecided about his future. Should he study law or medicine? To help him reach a decision, his father, Dr. Arnold L. Gesell—the noted child specialist who then headed the Yale Clinic of Child Development—invited his son to watch major surgery. Young Gerhard went—but stayed only a few bloody minutes. He fled the amphitheater in horror with his mind made up. He was going to be a lawyer.
Years later, after a financially rewarding career defending corporations in antitrust cases, Gesell was appointed a federal judge in 1967. Today, as he presides over the trial of the White House “plumbers,” the 64-year-old Gesell is keeping the illustrious family name in the news—where it has often been since he went to the bench. An outspoken jurist, he declared the dismissal of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox illegal, refused to enjoin the Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers, and led the way towards liberalized abortion laws by ruling that a Washington, D.C. statute on abortion was too “vague” to be enforceable. The meticulous research which has characterized Judge Gesell’s preparation of cases, the scholarly and lucid opinions he has handed down in a number of landmark cases and his measured behavior in the courtroom may all owe something to his father’s work.
“Children, no matter what their age, must be handled with deference,” said Dr. Arnold Gesell, who from 1911 until his death in 1961 was an unofficial ombudsman for the youth of America. “They must be examined as individuals and treated as individuals.” And that is what he and his staff at Yale—and later at the Gesell Institute—set out to do. Their findings, which set norms of behavior at every stage of development, influenced a generation of parents and educators.
For the two Gesell children—Gerhard and sister Katherine—life with father was a liberating experience. Though the judge makes a practice of not commenting on his nonjudicial life, his wife Peggy acknowledges, “Yes, they were raised according to the ‘method.’ Their parents found out it worked.” The elder Gesell was not only a considerate father but, Mrs. Gesell adds, when the time came, “He was an uncritical, patient grandfather” too.
Judge Gesell and his wife, a Vassar graduate whom he met at Yale, live a quiet life in Georgetown and spend weekends on their farm in Leesburg, Va., where he raises Black Angus cattle with judicial seriousness. Their children Peter, 35, and Patricia, 32, have long since left home, but the family still gathers every August at their summer house in Maine. And Judge Gesell has already let it be known that he expects to be there this year, White House plumbers or no.
Judge Gesell, like his father, knows the need to relax. When he is not off sailing, come August, the judge is likely to be flying the big Colombian bird-kite his wife gave him last week—his 64th birthday present.