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January 11, 2022 In Remembrance

Remembering Doug Kahn

By Steve Johnson, Dunbar Family Professor of Law, Florida State University College of Law

We remember the great ones among us because they have helped make us what we are now. And we remember them because they are signposts on the road to what we hope to become.

On October 22, 2021, Douglas Kahn passed away peacefully at his home in Tallahassee, Florida. I had the privilege of knowing Doug and of learning from his example. At first this happened indirectly, through his son, Jeffrey, who has been my friend and tax colleague here at Florida State for a dozen years; then directly but briefly at tax conferences in which we both participated; then, crowningly, as colleagues for several years at Florida State where he graced our classrooms and halls as a Visiting Professor after his retirement from the University of Michigan Law School at which he had taught tax law for over half a century.

Doug was widely, and rightly, known as a giant in the field of tax law. Dean Paul Caron of Pepperdine University School of Law described Doug as “one of the true tax legends of our time.” Professor Calvin Johnson of the University of Texas School of Law described his feelings on Doug’s passing: “One of the good pillars of our network of tax law has left us, and I am very sad today.”

Wherein did Doug’s greatness lie? Let us see and let us grow by the recollection.

I. Achievements and Contributions

First, some facts. Doug grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. He received his B.A. from the University of North Carolina and his J.D. from the George Washington University College of Law. While still a student, he worked at the Covington & Burling law firm. It was at the firm that Doug’s career path took the turn that so enriched the tax community. Doug wrote:

I discovered at Covington that I thoroughly enjoyed my tax assignments and that led to my eventually specializing in it. The enjoyment I found in analyzing statutes and regulations and applying them to specific circumstances led me to adopt a problem method for teaching tax when I became a professor.

After graduating from law school, Doug was first employed by the U.S. Department of Justice, where he served in the appellate sections first of the Civil Division, later of the Tax Division. After four years at the Justice Department, Doug worked for two and a half years in private practice, specializing in taxation and estate planning.

Doug’s greatest contributions to the tax sorority/fraternity were rendered in his long, happy, productive, and influential career as a tax academic. He joined the Michigan faculty in 1964 and served there (sometimes visiting at other outstanding law schools) until 2016. Doug was a prolific scholar and wrote books and articles on a wide range of tax topics, including some co-authored with Jeffrey, collaboration which Doug deemed “one of the great thrills of my life.” Yet, as we shall see, despite the extent and significance of Doug’s research, “it [was] the teaching of students that [was his] primary love.”

II. Wellsprings of Achievements and Contributions

Each observer sees in and takes from the life of a remarkable person what that observer most needs or wants. Change the observer and one changes what is observed. Nonetheless, at least parts of the following may be familiar enough, personally true enough to bring a smile of recollection, a feeling of “yes, that was the man I knew and treasured” to each who received the great gift of knowing Doug.

To me, the wellsprings of Doug’s greatness and goodness included his (1) intellectual rigor and passion, (2) courage to steer by his own lights, (3) joy in and zest for life, (4) gratitude, and (5) love. We see qualities in others only if we possess them ourselves. Thus, one is not surprised that Doug observed and valued the above traits in those around him. For instance, Doug wrote of his colleague and close friend Professor Yale Kamisar: “As impressive as his academic credentials are, they pale in comparison to Yale as an individual with a distinctive personality. ... What is amazing is that Yale’s stature is not the product of any affectation; rather it stems from the core personality and passion of the man.” Were one to substitute “Doug” for “Yale,” this encomium would remain equally true.

We also see the above qualities displayed in various combinations in how Doug’s peers, friends, family, and former students remember Doug. These categories were highly permeable. Many of his colleagues and former students became his lifelong friends. Whether he would have put it in these terms, I do not know, but it seemed to me that Doug gained much satisfaction in thinking of himself as one peak in a range rather than as a mountain standing sole and separate on an otherwise flat horizon. His recollections were peppered with references to those who had mentored him in government and private practice, to his faculty colleagues, and to his former students who had risen to positions of prominence in law firms, corporations, government, and academia. His gratitude to them all and his almost familial embrace of them touched one deeply. Let us hear from a few of Doug’s legion of associates and admirers.

III. Reminiscences of Peers (and Friends)

Professor Calvin Johnson of the University of Texas School of Law recalled that Doug

was a frequent adversary—on accelerated depreciation, on carried interests, on capital gain eligibility—but he was an engineer of thoughtful well-crafted arguments. First time I met him, we were both at a lunch attached to some conference, and we started to talk—on opposite sides of both the table and some tax issues—and nobody else in the room mattered for the next hour or so, long after everyone else at the table had left.

Additional examples are not wanting of Doug’s intellectual independence and penchant for maintaining—passionately but always professionally—his views on appropriate tax policy in oral or written debates. Doug’s reservations about the usefulness of the “tax expenditures” concept—a widely used but controversial tool of tax policy analysisis a case in point.

Doug’s zeal for discussing tax and his zest for life were recalled as well by Professor Deborah Geier of the Cleveland Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University:

I actually got to play Doug Kahn as a visitor to Michigan when he visited at Cambridge. Our semesters did not overlap perfectly, so he was there to welcome me (and entertain me at dinner), where we dissected the horizontal double dummy technique. (You know what happens when two tax nerds have dinner…) I still remember diagramming the transaction for him, which I turned into slides that I use even today. His enjoyment of life was so obvious that it taught me a good lesson: never take yourself so seriously that you forget to enjoy what you’re doing! He shall be missed.

Dean Erin O’Connor of the Florida State University College of Law similarly observed Doug’s deep thoughts conveyed in his charming, distinctive manner. She wrote: “We will dearly miss his incredible brilliance and his quick, slightly quirky, yet always warm-hearted wit. Doug’s career was impressive, and his life was very well lived.”

For my own part, “like… countless others, I too fell under the spell of Doug’s unique blend of intellectual passion, curiosity, ‘down to the core’ goodness, and bonhomie, I am deeply grateful that I had the chance to work with Doug and to get to know him. I treasure my memories of Doug Kahn.”

Jeffrey Kahn noted similar qualities Doug displayed in other contexts:

[Doug] was happy to discuss any topic, be it law, politics, the works of Noel Coward, the tax consequences of a triangular reorganization, or Michigan athletics, just to name a few. ... Doug was a true renaissance man. He was an avid patron of the theater, loved to travel, studied history and literature, and mastered the games of both chess (where he once earned a draw against Bobby Fischer) and bridge (where he earned the ranking of Ruby Life Master). His laugh was booming and infectious, and he loved to tell a good story.

It was the same blend of intellect and spirit that led Doug to tax law. Although he humorously offered that “[t]axation must be in my family’s blood; my brother, my wife, my son, and my daughter-in-law were all tax lawyers,” kismet and genetics perhaps were not the main causes of Doug’s choice of career. Instead, these words of his may hit closer to the mark:

I especially enjoy the analytical aspect of law, and that aspect is prominent in the tax field. It is the joy of analysis and of solving puzzles that makes tax such a fascinating topic to me. My principal hobby is chess, and I think that the same type of thinking that chess involves is at the core of tax practice too.

IV. Reminiscences of Former Students (and Peers and Friends)

We have seen that teaching students was Doug’s “primary love.” Doug repeatedly returned to this theme. In 2005, Doug wrote: “I look back at my life now and realize how extraordinarily fortunate I have been. I have loved my career and still find a thrill from the classroom… . I not only enjoy the teaching of classes but also the friendships that I formed with some of my students. I take pride and pleasure in their achievements and whatever little role I may have had in helping them. All in all, it has been a great life.”

I had the privilege of seeing Doug teach and interact with students taking his tax courses at Florida State. It was apparent that the flame of Doug’s enthusiasm for working with students burned as brightly in 2021 as it had in 2005. His performance in the classroom was exemplary throughout. He imparted to students his commitment to “thoughtful well-crafted arguments,” to borrow Professor Calvin Johnson’s well-chosen phrase. Yet his Florida State students, as his Michigan students, always knew that Doug’s intellectual rigor went hand-in-hand with his affection for them and his desire to contribute to their bright futures.

Professor Emily Cauble of DePaul University College of Law recalled:

Doug Kahn’s individual income tax class was what sparked my interest in tax law, and I know he inspired so many others in a similar way. Every time I teach the class myself, I remember and call upon so many helpful aspects of his teaching. I will remain forever grateful for the help that he provided when I was starting a career in academia and for his continued support over the years. Most of all, I will remember his kindness and generosity.

Professor Andrea Monroe of Temple University School of Law echoed Professor Cauble’s sentiment, noting:

Doug was the best teacher I ever had, and he’s still the person I think about every time I stand in front of a classroom. There was nothing like Doug’s joyful teaching, his formidable intellect, and his warm (and quite distinctive) laughter. As a student, a young lawyer, and a new law professor, knowing that someone like Doug believed in you made all the difference in the world. It certainly did for me, and I will be forever grateful for his faith, support, and endless kindness.

Whether in academia or in practice, we all are teachers. What higher praise could there be for a teacher than Professor Cauble’s and Professor Monroe’s words about Doug? And, as we work with our own students or young lawyers, what greater motivation could there be than the hope that someday we may inspire in them the sentiments that Doug inspired in Professor Cauble, Professor Monroe, and numerous others?

In recognition and appreciation of Doug’s love of students, Florida State is in the process of creating a fund to help our students aspiring to practice tax law to meet expenses that will facilitate their entry into the profession, including costs of participating in bar association tax section events. The fund will bear Doug’s name.

V. Conclusion

Samuel Johnson remarked: “It matters not how one dies, but how one lives.” Doug requested that no formal memorial services be held for him. I understand Doug’s wish in this regard through the perspective offered to us by Rumi: “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes—because for those who love with heart and soul there is no thing as separation.”

From how Doug lived, we may learn much. If we avail ourselves of this opportunity, and if we become links in a chain of transmission of knowledge, skills, and values within the tax community, we will find that we have not, after all, been separated from Doug. 

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