‘Beyond the Surface’

College supporter credits UT for opening his mind and building a foundation for his success


Ever thought about the effectiveness of that sign? Whether it’s a helpful solution to ice-related auto accidents on bridges—or just a simple sign?

Jay St. Clair (’80) has considered that sign, although not part of his career as a successful Birmingham attorney. He remembers it as one of the first projects he and his classmates tackled during his time as a College Scholars major in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We looked at that sign and thought, ‘Huh, how would we go about solving this problem?’” St. Clair says. “We said the sign is just an indication of the problem, so we thought through solutions like heating the bridge, but that would be expensive.

“At some point in the process, we realized the sign wasn’t a statement of the problem—it was the solution. The most cost-effective way to avoid accidents was to post that sign. I remember going through that and thinking, ‘Wow.’ Something about that opened my eyes.”

St. Clair uses that College Scholars learning experience in his role as an adjunct professor for the Cumberland School of Law.

“What really stuck with me through College Scholars is that things aren’t what they always appear to be. You’ve got to be curious and not accept things at face value,” he says. “I remember that and try to get [my students] to think beyond the surface and beyond the obvious.”

After graduating at the top of his class at UT, St. Clair went on to earn a JD at Yale Law School. He then began practicing law in Birmingham and today is the managing shareholder for the Birmingham and Mobile offices of Littler Mendelson P.C. He never lost his Volunteer spirit, though. A longtime supporter of the college, St. Clair is an associate member of the Dean’s Advisory Board and supports the College Fund for Arts and Sciences, the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and the Alvin H. Nielsen College Scholars Scholarship Endowment—named for a former College of Arts and Sciences dean and which helped St. Clair during his time as a student.

“It was my junior year when they started the Dean Nielsen scholarship,” St. Clair says. “I got to know him and meet him, and that scholarship came at a time when it meant a lot. I lost my mother when I was a junior, so I needed the money.

“UT was there for me when I needed them—certainly academically and financially. And I just had a terrific experience,” he says. “I remember saying to myself when I graduated that what the university did for me was really a loan—that’s how I thought of it. I needed to pay it back.”

St. Clair stresses that thanks to the foundational education he received at UT and the College of Arts and Sciences, he’s had a more successful career than he “ever dreamed.”

“In life, we’re helped by all kinds of people along the way,” he says. “The right thing to do is to help them back when we can.…I’m hopefully passing on to someone else the same kind of support that someone before me passed on to me.

“It’s almost like ‘random acts of kindness.’ This is maybe not so random, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Roger Hagy, Jr.