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NLADA tribute to Joe Bartylak

The following tribute to Joseph R. Bartylak appeared in the NLADA Update, Vol. 12, Number 12, September 3, 2010.

Joe Bartylak, long time former executive director of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation (LLLAF) and a national leader in the legal services community, died on August 26, 2010. Bartylak led the Project Advocacy Group (merged with NLADA in 1999) in the mid-1980s during tenuous times when the existence of federal funding for legal services was under attack and many legal aid programs were fighting to survive. Joe was essential to the efforts to preserve the Legal Services Corporation from its many hostile attacks during the decade of the 1980's.

His leadership, in great part, also helped LLLAF overcome these difficult times and later allowed for its expansion to the current service area of 65 counties in southern and central Illinois.

Before joining the Foundation, Bartylak worked in private practice and as a state's attorney. In 1971, he joined Legal Services of Madison County which was one of the seven organizations that merged to form the Legal Assistance Foundation. He became the Foundation's executive director in 1976, a position from which he retired and held for nearly 30 years. During his leadership, he established the Lawyers' Assistance Program which helped lawyers, judges, and law students combating alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health problems.

Bartylak is being remembered throughout the country as a giant in legal services, as Russell Scott, former LLLAF president described in a Chicago Tribune article remembering Bartylak. He was honored with many awards throughout his career including the Charles Dorsey Award from National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) and the Illinois State Bar Association Laureate Award. Joe is also remembered warmly by many of his colleagues across the country.

Don Saunders, NLADA's vice-president of Civil Legal Services stated:

Joe epitomized the best qualities of a leader. He brought to the table a deep wisdom and commitment about equal justice, coupled with a quiet determination to seek out the opinions of others before reaching a final decision on matters of importance. The survival fights of the 80's during Joe's tenure as a leader of the Project Advisory Group cut to the core of our country's commitment to justice. These political challenges also held the possibility of tremendous turmoil among a community of advocates whose very professional existence was at stake in many instances. Joe's leadership style and commitment to inclusiveness was a key element in ensuring the survival of the Legal Services Corporation and our ability to make great strides forward in improving the delivery of civil legal aid. All of us privileged to work in legal aid owe a great debt of gratitude to the steady leadership of Joe Bartylak. Everyone who knew Joe, whether in his beloved Illinois or across the nation, developed an easy and warm friendship with him. He will be sorely missed.

Alan Houseman, executive director of CLASP, remembered Joe's contributions:

The civil legal aid community has been blessed with several outstanding leaders. Joe Bartylak was one of the giants. He built and led Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, one of our finest, most effective and innovative civil legal aid programs. For that alone he will be long remembered. He also was one of our great national leaders. As chair of the Project Advisory Group, he effectively led our community in very difficult times. He was not a loud, talkative, charismatic leader. His style was quiet, unassuming and persistent leadership, but leadership it was. He worked with all key elements of our community - clients, project directors, staff representatives, rural and urban programs, Native American and migrant programs. He effectively brought all of these together to pursue common goals and present a unified position to LSC and Congress. He kept us together and focused during some of our darkest days when the very survival of civil legal aid was at stake. He also led us out of the darkness when civil legal aid could once again emerge as a significant component of our justice system. Those of us who helped staff PAG were indebted to him for his willingness to listen and to delegate. Linda Perle and I very much appreciated his deference to our staff work with the PAG Regulations and Reauthorization Committee. But we also understood and appreciated his leadership when it was necessary to take control and guide our work. Joe was also a loyal friend with many of us who work nationally. After he retired from Land of Lincoln, he continued to communicate with Linda and me and always made an individual donation to CLASP right up until his death. That was the kind of person Joe was.

Harrison McIver, Executive Director of Memphis Area Legal Services and former PAG Director, said:

Joe was not only an icon in the legal services community to those of us who knew him. He was a quiet soul who reflected before he would share his profound thoughts regarding whatever issues confronted us. I became keenly aware of his many qualities when he sat for many years on the Executive Committee of the Project Advisory Group (PAG) Steering Committee and I served as its Executive Director. My most memorable times were when I observed Joe and another legend- the late Charlie Dorsey, former Executive Director of the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland - both smokers, meeting in the smoking area of the meeting site. Upon their return to the meeting, betting odds were that no matter what the issue was on the Steering Committee floor, the dynamic duo would carry the day. Now Joe and Charlie are gone, joining many other giants of the equal justice movement in this country in a place where they can be at peace and eternal rest with the satisfaction that they have done well. We owe them so much for their sacrifice that may not be known by the younger generation of advocates of what they contributed to anchor and establish a firm foundation for our community today.

Most directly, Lois Wood, Joe's long-time colleague and successor as executive director at LLLAF shared these thoughts with us about Joe's distinguished career and what he meant to her:

Before there was a Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance, there were a number of small legal aid programs scattered throughout central and southern Illinois. It was a very fortunate day for low-income people when Joe came to work for a small legal aid office in Alton, Illinois. He brought to that office more than 20 years of general practice and trial experience, so unusual at a time when most newcomers to legal aid worker were just out of law school. He thrived at his new job, doing a high volume of individual and law reform cases in a wide variety of areas of law.

In 1976, Joe made the decision to apply for the position of Executive Director. This had to have been a very difficult decision for him; it was always so obvious how much he loved the practice of law. He had to know that the duties would consume all of his time, leaving him no time for his own clients. When he was named executive director, he committed himself to those responsibilities with the same passion he had had for his legal practice. And yet whenever I talked to him about an issue in one of my cases, it was evident how much he loved such discussions, and how much he would have loved to still be in the very thick of advocacy.

He was intensely devoted to the goal of providing high quality legal representation to as many poor people as possible. But he never lost sight of the need to make a broader impact in our communities. In 1985 the East St. Louis office wanted to file a public housing case challenging HUD's failure to act despite severe deterioration in public housing. Funding and staffing was very tight after the Reagan cutbacks, the legal theory was untested, and the case would take hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work. Despite all the reasons he could have said no, he said yes to filing the case, ultimately saving the homes of thousands of people in East St. Louis.

Joe led us through the dark days of the early 1980s and again through the hard times of the mid 1990s. I will never forget one phone call Joe and I had during that latter period when we talked about whether we could preserve at least a skeleton program if LSC funding ended. Never during that conversation, nor any other time, did I ever hear Joe give up on legal services or talk about leaving. If the doors closed on legal services, he was going to be the last person out the door.

What was Joe's management style? He was incredibly hardworking. He was a perfectionist. He rarely read anything without editing it and making it better. He was slow to delegate work, and tried to take it on himself so that the maximum amount of our resources could be used to represent clients. As a result, he was almost inhumanly busy, but he was always responsive. When anyone called him for help or advice, he always took the time to listen and think things through before he replied. He could be calming in times of crisis, but he was also decisive and inspiring.

Joe and I communicated the most by phone, because we never worked in the same office, and he was never a fan of e-mail. I think what I miss the most now is his voice on the phone, warm, kind and wise.