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For the Good of All

During my first year of umpiring in the Smithtown slow pitch softball league I came to know Mike Kwalik, a successful accountant and the softball league commissioner who scheduled games and assigned the umpires.

A former football player at Ohio State, Kwalik had rugged good looks and a pleasant manner. He had his hands in virtually everything in Smithtown, an old manufacturing town on the Ohio River originally settled by Eastern Europeans.

Once a gritty place linked to steel production, and for many years on life support after the mills closed, Smithtown has experienced a renaissance in recent years due to high tech and light manufacturing. The pride and dedication of the descendants of the town’s founders had held it together in its bleakest days and was the driving force in its survival.

Since Mike Kwalik had steered clients to my law practice, I couldn’t turn him down when he invited me to join the board of Feed Our Families (FOF), a charity dedicated to helping the homeless. Mike, who chaired FOF’s audit committee, told me, “We need young blood like you on the board, Paul. It’s a good group, but too club-like. It’s doing good work, but it needs fresh ideas.” I had other reasons to give back, my own history.

That was in the fall of 2008 when the “Great Recession” arrived in Smithtown. The complicated financial instruments created by the large banks and the bogus mortgages on which they were based crashed along with the stock market and consumer spending. Wall Street’s reckless behavior devastated Smithtown. People lost their jobs, homes, and in some cases, their families. Good decent people were living in cars, vacant houses, and tents in regional parks, and searching for food in dumpsters and in trash cans in the back of restaurants. Women and their children were positioned at busy intersections with small buckets pleading for donations.

I felt privileged to be part of FOF. It was a cause close to my heart, since my father had lost his job in the fall of 1977, when the regional steel mill, hit hard by foreign imports, closed throwing 5,000 men and women out of work. I was barely three-years-old when it happened. Dad was devastated and had a breakdown. Mom was cleaning two houses a day to keep us going and my two older sisters were waiting tables after school to help ends meet. We were soon on food stamps after we lost our home. We ended up living in a deteriorating public housing project – a virtual war zone peopled with families without hope. Though never homeless, we came close to it. I survived that experience thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of my mother and sisters.

Dad was lost and never recovered. This once proud man was reduced to a dim figure in an old sweat shirt, sitting in a scruffy chair in a haze of smoke, sipping canned beer between coughs and drags on his Camel cigarettes. Perpetually watching television, the remote control gave him the freedom to watch the world change without leaving his seat. He had little to say. He had given up on life, which eventually gave up on him. When I was twelve, I came home from school one day to find him dead in his chair.

Dad’s death gave us a new freedom. Mom and I moved out of the project and into a basement apartment down the street from my older sister’s place. Possessed with Mom’s drive, I went on to Ohio State and then to Dayton for law school before finding my way to Smithtown to work with a single practitioner before I joined the DA’s office.

All in for FOF, I soon learned that when you join a charitable board, it’s not necessarily about your experience or compassion. Sure, that’s important, but you’re expected to contribute money to the cause and solicit your friends, clients, and business associates to do likewise. I was more than happy to do so and I did it with a passion. My law practice was doing well. I was glad to lend my energy towards raising money.

What bothered me was the looseness of the oversight by the board. Mike was spot on – the board was like a club. I read everything that was sent to me and searched the internet to learn what similar organizations were doing around the county. I was disappointed to discover that reading and research was not expected and sometimes not appreciated. I was one of the few who questioned recommendations from senior board members or staff. Mike would smile at me, when I’d be asking questions. He would pull me aside at times, and we would joke about my futile efforts. Simply put, the board placed a premium on avoiding tension and disagreement. I didn’t mind though, I was grateful to Mike for getting me involved. It was a great cause and our efforts were helping solid people – good families – survive until they got back on their feet.

I guess you could say that this is a story of good people and bad people, but oftentimes in life it’s difficult to tell the good from the bad. That’s what happened to me.  Read More 
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