By: Cody McElroy
Former LSU Law professor and Louisiana Civil Code revisionist, Athanassios Nicholas Yiannopoulos, known as “Thanassi,” passed away at the age of 88 on February 1st, 2017, at the Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Born in 1928 in Thessaloniki, Greece, he grew up under Fascist occupation during World War II. He joined a youth resistance movement, later serving in the military after receiving his law degree in Thessaloniki in 1950. He went on to earn advanced law degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley, before eventually accepting an associate professor of law position at LSU in 1958. Yiannopoulos’s LSU Law tenure lasted until 1979, when he took a position at the Tulane Law Center, where he taught until his retirement in 2007.
Outside of teaching civil law seminars and participating in numerous legislative committees, the Greek native’s greatest legal accomplishment was the revision and revival of Louisiana’s Civil Code. By the 1960’s, our code had become “outdated,” according to Katherine Spaht, former LSU Law professor, Civil Code revisionist, and colleague and friend of Yiannopoulos. Spaht noted that in the earlier version “many articles were almost identical to Roman law.”
“He was kind of the father of the revision,” Spaht said of Yiannopoulos. “His project was the first comprehensive revision.” While our code had been revised in places, Yiannopoulos headed the first complete revision, bringing it wholly into the modern world. Such work was a labor of love. “He loved the civil law, and for others who loved it, he was an inspiration. He was magnificent at codal interpretation and had much to contribute to a junior colleague getting started.”
His work was two-fold. The Code needed to be accepted into practice. Spaht said Yiannopoulos spoke with eventual Louisiana Supreme Court justices Dennis, Tate, and Barham in the early 1970s about citing our Code and commentary in opinions, not common law sources. “He got us back to the civil law,” Spaht said. “It was a rebirth and revival.”
However, Yiannopoulos was more than just his work. “He was completely full of life,” Spaht remarked. “He had a big, booming voice, erect carriage. You enjoyed being around him.” Spaht described how Yiannopoulos would playfully battle wits in the coffee lounge with former LSU Law professor and civil law great, Saul Litvinoff, often in many different languages.
Jerry Dodson, friend and colleague of Yiannopoulos, added, “Thanassi had a million friends,” and Spaht was no exception. She became close to Yiannopoulos when they worked on various committees and subcommittees of the Louisiana legislature and with the Louisiana State Law Institute. Though the two argued different positions at times, Spaht said they were never in a truly “adversarial” role. Rather, there was a mutual respect. “I came to admire his wordmanship, his ability to draft codal language.”
Yiannopoulos once invited Spaht to a Tulane teaching program in Greece. While mostly in Rhodes, Spaht and her daughter spent two nights in Spetses with Yiannopoulos and company. “He loved to invite everyone out to dinner,” she said. “He was a perfect host.” It was in Greece that Spaht came to know more about his life outside of the legal profession.
Yiannopoulos was accepted on merit alone into a local English boarding school as a boy, according to Spaht, but others students were enrolled solely through financial means. Yiannopoulos was often lonely, Spaht said, and he wrote poetry. “I never knew that,” Spaht said of Yiannopoulos’s poetry. “I saw a poignant side of him there I would not have otherwise seen.” The two fostered a true friendship. “He was the only person I never corrected with calling me ‘Cathy.’” Why? “Because he was Thanassi.”
Yiannopoulos lived a full life, survived by his wife, three children, and numerous grandchildren, and leaving behind an impressive jurist’s legacy. He was a scholar and friend. Spaht described him as, “A person who took his responsibility for the law and its crafting as seriously as anything else he did. He was a joy to be around and he never took himself too seriously.”