Catching up with Jonathan Shaub

Jan. 2, 2018

Jonathan Shaub keeps returning home to Nashville. A free-spirit out of Lipscomb Academy, Shaub fought through multiple shoulder injuries to earn three letters as a Vanderbilt defensive back and distinguish himself in the classroom as a double major. Upon graduation, Shaub traveled the globe, including spending a year as an English composition instructor in Ukraine. Jonathan’s life changed suddenly during the winter of 2005 when he suffered life-threatening injuries after being hit by a truck. Shaub returned to academic rigor during his prolonged recovery in Nashville, earning a master’s in English language and literature from Belmont.

Shaub then moved to Chicago and began pursuing a law degree. In 2011, he received the prestigious John Paul Stevens Award for Academic Excellence from Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law by graduating first in his class. Shaub spent the next five years working in Washington, D.C., including tenures as a Bristow Fellow and attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, as an associate at global firm Hogan Lovells, and as a clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District. Last August, Shaub returned to Nashville, joining the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office as an assistant solicitor general.

Today, Shaub resides just east of campus with his wife, Rachel, and their three young children.

Jonathan, where have you been since earning your Vanderbilt degree?

I've been all over, but keep ending up back in Nashville. I lived in Kiev, Ukraine for a year after graduation, then moved to New York City to pursue journalism and writing, which I soon discarded for plans to go to Oxford to pursue a degree in philosophy of science and religion. After my unfortunate encounter with an oil tanker in New York, however, I ended up back in Nashville for several years doing rehab, having follow-up surgeries, dating my future wife (also my former high school girlfriend, who helped nurse me back to health), and pursuing a master's degree in English and creative writing at Belmont. After my wife and I were married, we moved to Chicago, where I attended law school at Northwestern University (and had the pleasure of watching my college teammate/roommate and overall superstar Hunter Hillenmeyer thrive as a Bears linebacker). After law school, we moved to Baltimore for a year so I could clerk for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and then we subsequently moved to Washington D.C. after I was lucky enough to get a fellowship with the U.S. Solicitor General. We ended up hanging around D.C. for five years -- raising and growing our family Eleanor (6), Aubrey (5), and Eastin (2) before finally deciding to make the move back close to family (and free child care!) this past summer.

Talk about growing up in Nashville. Were you raised a Commodore fan?

The only sports teams I ever loved growing up (aside from the Boston Celtics) wore black and gold and had stars on their uniforms. My grandfather, Dr. Joseph Ross, was an associate vice chancellor with significant responsibility for managing Vanderbilt hospital. He helped start the emergency program and the Life Flight program there, and he was also an enormous sports fan. He took me to countless Vandy basketball and football games growing up, and my dad was a big fan too (he went to Vandy for graduate school). I remember watching Ronnie McMahon, Barry Goheen, Billy McCaffrey, Frank Seckar and the rest from section 2L. And my grandfather had 40-yard line seats where I would often join him to watch Eric Jones, Ronnie Wilson, Damian Allen, Shelton Quarles, Corey Chavous and others. Since Nashville had no pro sports teams, Vanderbilt sports were my one and only true love. I can remember the depth of bitterness and, yes, hatred, I felt for my orange-wearing friends.

What was your favorite sport as a youngster?

Definitely basketball. I loved Larry Bird (mainly, I think, because my dad liked Magic Johnson) and then worshiped Michael Jordan and his Bulls, going so far as to beg my parents (successfully) to paint my room red and get me black furniture when we moved into a new house. I would spend hours playing basketball in our driveway, and I very nearly quit football in high school because some basketball coaches told me that playing football would hinder my basketball potential.

Who was your biggest mentor growing up? Who was the person that always motivated you?

No one was a bigger mentor to me than my father. From a young age, I would go every Sunday afternoon to watch him play pickup basketball, and then I eventually started playing (and guarding the shortest guy on the floor) as I got into middle school. My dad was so tough and athletic, and I could never beat him at anything, sports or otherwise (nor did he ever let me). He would never accept anything less than my best, even if it was pretty good. The same principle was true if I came home with a math test on which I had missed one question or if I missed one layup in the basketball game. No matter how many others I got right or made, he would ask me what happened on that one. I also had incredible coaches at Lipscomb, namely Coach Glenn McCadams who passed away four years ago but remains an inspiration to me on an almost daily basis about how life should be lived and the priorities to which a person should ultimately adhere.

Today, would you rather watch a college football game on television, binge watch a TV series or read a good book?

Honestly, I would rather read a good book, and I think I would have given the same answer in college. In reality, at this moment in my life, I would enjoy having the time to do any of them. Our three kids keep me pretty busy, and I try to spend as much of the free time I have with them as possible, particularly on the weekends. But there is little better than escaping into a good book.

What’s the last book you read?

I'll give you a couple-- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a powerful and challenging work of fiction about slavery, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, an author I love. Because I read so much legal writing at work, which can be interesting in substance but incredibly boring as a style of writing, I love losing myself into a good work of fiction.

Give us your three favorite local restaurants?

There are so many new ones I've been told I have to try, that I feel unqualified to answer this question. But, if forced, I will give you four, each for a different reason. I love Martin's, particularly the brisket. Second, my whole family loves Taco Mamacita, which is right down the street from our house and a weekly outing (along with Legato gelato next door, which my 2-year-old thinks is heaven). I'm not sure I've ever had a taco better than their Oy Vey Korean bbq taco. Third, every time we visited Nashville when we were living away, I made my wife go to Copper Kettle for lunch. And finally, of the restaurants with amazing chefs and food that have sprung up all over Nashville that I have actually had the opportunity to try, I love City House. My wife and I had a memorable anniversary dinner there last year.

Could we still find you bargain shopping at a local Goodwill outlet?

I wish! My wife won't really let me. Or at least I’d like to blame her. I don’t think my choice of profession quite fits with my preferred clothing choices. Law firms and government agencies don’t look too kindly on suits, let alone T-shirts, from Goodwill. I'm mostly a boring grown-up in my sartorial choices these days.

Though injuries slowed your gridiron career, what is your fondest memory of playing in a Vanderbilt uniform?

I have a couple: my freshman year (1999), we played at Florida, ranked in the top 10 at the time. I was the nickel back, and I got to play a lot since Spurrier went three and four wideouts so often. In the roaring Swamp, the game back and forth the whole time, the crowd, which felt like perpendicular walls full of screaming, furious fans, yelling at us and throwing things at us. It was awesome. In the third quarter, a 13-7 game at the time (I believe), I blitzed from the slot, sacked Doug Jones and forced a fumble, which Chuck Losey recovered. The team went crazy, thinking we now had the field position to go take the lead.

My other favorite memory is homecoming senior year against Connecticut. We were ahead with a few minutes left, and they were driving. I intercepted a corner route to end the game. The best/worst part was that I was running toward the sideline when I picked it, and could have, and should have, gone out of bounds after catching it. But I tiptoed on the sideline and then tried to run it back, making it to about the five-yard line before getting pushed out of bounds. As soon as I got tackled, my teammates surrounded me screaming--and crushed me. I later got yelled at for not stepping out of bounds and ending the game (instead of risking a fumble), but I told them it was probably my last chance to score a touchdown as a Commodore! I couldn't pass up that chance.

Talk about the accident in New York City and its impact on how you approach life today?

Is there a page limit on this thing? Seriously, I could write for days about it. And, in fact, I've actually been trying to finish a book about my experiences that I wrote most of as a graduate student, but life has kept me busy.

As concisely as I can, though, I think it has changed my experiences in two principal ways: One, I understand better than I ever did before what it means to be unable to do things, to be handicapped in ways that hard work cannot overcome, and to experience pain that is not easily resolved. I have a profound empathy for people who are handicapped or in pain that I never had before, and I understand my own weakness as a human being in a more profound, visceral way. Second, I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to be alive, walking, a husband and father, and not in the hospital or rehab. The accident taught me that dwelling or focusing on the things that are bad, that hurt, or that I have lost accomplishes nothing and consumes my mind. But focusing on what I do have, which is made easier for me by considering what could have been, makes me appreciate the incredible blessings I've been given in this life.

Talk about returning to Nashville in the Tennessee Solicitor General’s Office. What area of law do you concentrate on?

I can’t express how fortunate I feel to have been given this opportunity with the Solicitor General. Sometimes I worry that someone is just playing a cruel joke on me because it seems too good to be true. We have always wanted to return to Nashville, but I’ve always been concerned about finding a job here that fit me. I’ve never been inclined toward working at a big law firm, and I truly found purpose working for the public interest with the U.S. Department of Justice. My current role offers me that same purpose but at an even higher level because now I am working on behalf of my home state as part of a smaller team instead of being a very small part in the enormous federal government. And I can’t imagine working with better people. Solicitor General (Andrée) Blumstein is one of the kindest, most intelligent, and most interesting people with whom I have ever worked, and Attorney General (Herbert) Slattery runs an incredibly efficient, collegial, and hardworking office of which I feel extremely fortunate to be a part.

I focus on appellate law, which is really a description more of the type of work that I do than an area of law. That’s also the reason I love it. The Solicitor General supervises all of the appeals on behalf of the state of Tennessee, and our office is also in charge of drafting Attorney General opinions when a state official requests a legal opinion on an area of law not before the courts. These appeals and opinions that come through our office, span a diverse range of issues--from constitutional law to criminal law--arising under both federal and state law and in state courts and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Each appeal or opinion presents a discrete question in a specific area of law with which I may or may not be familiar--so far I have worked on matters related to, among other things, immigration, the First Amendment, the termination of parental rights, education, and even the law governing motorboats--and my work typically involves a lot of reading to understand the question and its legal context and then a good bit of writing, either an appellate brief that will be filed with a court or a legal opinion that the Attorney General will issue. The work can be monastic at times, with all the reading and writing, but it constantly challenges me and teaches me new things. I can count on one hand the number of times I have appeared as an attorney in courtroom since law school, so I’m not the “Matlock” or “Jack McCoy” type of lawyer. I’m more like a nerdy extra who is shown briefly either staring at a computer screen or reading a book before the real action starts. But I love it.

Describe your life 10 years from now?

Well, I will then have a 16-year-old daughter, a 15-year-old daughter, and a 12-year-old son. The only word I can think of to describe that is terrifying!

If you didn’t work in law, what would you be doing?

My answer depends on whether I am still me or if I can change some aspects of me as part of the hypothetical. If I could make myself shorter, with better hearing, narrower shoulders, faster reflexes, and more self-discipline, I would be an astronaut. The hypothetical would also have to exclude my wife, who would kill me before I even had a chance to step on a spaceship.

As myself, no changes allowed, I’d be a teacher and/or a writer. I’ve have always loved to teach and long thought my future would be as a professor. And I do hope to teach in some capacity in the future, whether it’s a full-time job or a part-time pursuit. I think I need human interaction too much to be a full-time writer, but I would love to be able to dedicate some time to finish my book about my accident and recovery. And I have several other writing ideas -- both fiction and non-fiction -- I would pursue if I had the opportunity.

You’re a Nashville native. What do you think of your hometown?

I can say that it has changed exponentially even since I graduated from Vandy. I feel like I am still uncovering all of the interesting layers that Nashville has to offer, and I am looking forward to continuing that process for the foreseeable future.

Nashville has everything a person could want in a city -- culture, food, diversity, music, art, history, sports, and idiosyncratic pockets unlike anywhere else in the world. Having lived in Kiev, New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., the only thing I truly miss in Nashville is a good public transportation system and, as a parent, a good children’s museum (D.C.’s free Smithsonian museums are difficult to replicate anywhere, though). Despite its growth, Nashville remains a place where almost everywhere I go I run into someone I know from my childhood, high school, Vanderbilt, or elsewhere. And even if I don’t know anyone, I feel like I do. Nashville is a modern metropolis, but I think people here still understand the value in taking time to get to know other people on a personal level. And I’m glad to be in a place like that.
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