Gray-suited Pete Schenkkan doesn’t look like a philosopher or a poet. Given his brushed-back hair and studied smile, he appears just right for his actual job: a lawyer who deals in the area of regulatory litigation.
Yet Schenkkan — who belongs to a well-known Austin family of writers, actors, teachers and activists — can’t help seeing his job in a noble light.
"The law is one of the finest creations of the human mind," Schenkkan, 65, says. "It enables so much else to happen at all and determines whether things happen well or badly."
Besides the customary work he does for the Austin firm of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, Schenkkan takes on big cases on issues such as worker’s compensation, electrical market restructuring, groundwater regulation and, most recently, women’s health care, representing Planned Parenthood in its tangles with the state of Texas.
"As a lawyer, you get to participate in making the law work better at serving society’s needs or current society’s understanding of those needs," he says. "I passionately want to make the system better. It’s kind of a game with real stakes. It’s an outlet for one’s interest in understanding the way things work and then for making it better."
Once a Schenkkan …
A quiet strain of determined idealism runs through Schenkkan’s family. His father, public media pioneer Bob Schenkkan, is credited with founding KLRU and KUT. His brother is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, whose latest script, "All the Way," is about LBJ’s first term.
His wife, Frances Victory Schenkkan, is a prize-winning poet. One son, Ben McKenzie, who opted to use his middle name, sizzles on the TV cop drama "Southland" after melting hearts on "The O.C." His other sons, both former actors, are involved in nonprofits and the law.
The lawyer was born in Durham, N.C., where his theatrical parents were associated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was the oldest of four boys.
"It was very active and somewhat competitive and somewhat combative childhood," he says. His parents pasted a cartoon on the fridge picturing two little boys chasing another boy around with a tomahawk. The caption read: "They told us to have more than one so they would have someone to play with."
The family moved to Austin when Pete was 8. He attended Dill Elementary and Casis Elementary, then O. Henry Junior High before enrolling in Groton School, the elite Massachusetts college prep.
"It was not my idea," he says. "My father was from Brooklyn, my mother from Georgia, both from the bottom rung of class. They encountered people who had gone to prep schools and it sounded good to them."
Modeled after English "public schools," Episcopalian Groton was very much oriented to public service and leadership. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the students about civil rights, while McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to two presidents, spoke on Vietnam.
At the University of Virginia, he studied history, languages, literature and economics. There, he was part of an ad hoc group of students who demonstrated peacefully (in coats and ties) in favor of integration.
He met his wife during a summer job at the telephone company in Austin. She had just finished the first year of a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Texas.
"It was pretty close to love at first sight," he says. "She likes to tell the story that that day I was wearing a pink shirt and when she saw the pink shirt, she thought: ‘God really does have a plan for me.’"
They married after his first year as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University where he studied politics, philosophy and economics. President Bill Clinton was in the previous class. Clinton joined his class for a send-off dinner in New York City, then boarded the ship the next day to get to know the next 32 Rhodes scholars.
"He was clearly already running for president," Schenkkan jokes. "Or something."
At UT Law School, Schenkkan studied with distinguished specialists on the U.S. Constitution, federal practices and procedures and federal courts. While there, he and fellow students organized a fund for minority student scholarships, raising $1 million.
The idealism just never went away. He continues to find poetry in regulations and public policy that are, effectively, legal instruments.
How many laws are there, anyway?
"You need a Borges answer," he laughs gently. "Depends on what you call a law. It’s a lot."