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Sylvester J. Petro: In Memoriam, 1917-2007

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On November 10, 2007, former NYU School of Law Professor Sylvester Petro passed away at age 90.

Petro joined NYU as an assistant professor in 1950, shortly after earning his J.D. and LL.M. from the University of Chicago and University of Michigan law schools, respectively. He focused on labor, antitrust and contract law and also taught constitutional law. “Sylvester Petro was an unabashed libertarian, strongly maintaining that government regulation of the economy was undesirable in almost all circumstances,” says Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law Norman Dorsen, Petro’s colleague for 11 years. “He also believed, and here he was in a distinct minority, that federal and state regulatory statutes were unconstitutional as exceeding the power of government.”

Dorsen remembers, however, that Petro “made his arguments vigorously but politely and with a certain sense of humor.” It is this last characteristic that distinguished Petro’s teaching, says former student Harvey Ishofsky ’71. “His love for law was reflected in how he taught in classrooms. He was both moving and witty.”

According to his family, Petro was a founder of the Conservative Party of New York in the 1960s and a member of the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society, and worked for the Foundation for Economic Education and the National Right to Work Committee. Among many titles, he wrote The Labor Policy of the Free Society, The Kohler Strike and The Kingsport Strike.

He left NYU in 1972 to join the faculty of Wake Forest University School of Law and taught labor law there until 1978. Petro also directed an institute for labor policy analysis, which has since closed.

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