48 Years Ago…
Yep—it was that long ago. I had graduated from college in 1969, and after some difficult times wondering whether I would be drafted before I was called up for VISTA, I left for Montevideo, Minnesota, where I was a VISTA “planner.” It was an amazing year, both there and in Owatonna, Minnesota. I lived on $180 a month, organized a buying cooperative of poor farmers, and learned more than I ever dreamed. I learned a great deal about myself, living alone in a cabin outside Dodge Center. I learned about poor people—their resilience, their creativity, the struggles they have. I learned that I was one dental bill away from being poor. And I learned that I wanted to be a “poverty lawyer.”
There was no legal services at the time. But there were VISTA lawyers, living on the same stipend I was. I don’t recall why I was in court at the time, but there I was, and I saw a lawyer stand up next to a poor person and advocate for him. Until that moment, I had no idea what I was going to do with my English degree. Like many 23 year-olds, I knew only that I wanted to do something significant and real, and that I wanted to work with poor people. That VISTA lawyer not only stood next to the poor person, he stood up for them. And at that moment, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer.
I headed off to law school, and in my third year, I looked around for a local legal services corporation. I was a visiting student at the University of Kentucky. There were no local legal services organizations, but there was the Department of Public Advocacy in nearby Frankfort. I didn’t know much about being a public defender, but knew they represented poor people. I signed on as a law clerk. I was Ed Monahan’s (present Kentucky Public Advocate) law clerk for my third year, and then I was hired by Public Advocate Jack Farley to work in appeals. I was sworn in as a lawyer in 1977, and have been hooked ever since. I served as an appellate lawyer, a trial lawyer, the director of a new trial office, a regional manager, and then Public Advocate for twelve years.
It's been a helluva ride that began 48 years ago in a courtroom in rural Minnesota. It’s good to remember during this National Public Defense Week.