Retirement is a good time to go to work

Association House and playground

Association House – a settlement house in Chicago, where Chester Kolmodin volunteered for West Town Legal Services. (Photo from Chicago History in Post Cards)

When I read about Jim Scheibel and the Encore Fellowship program at Hamline University, my mind slid back in time, remembering a retiree volunteer named Chester Kolmodin.

I was a young lawyer, just licensed and working at a settlement house in Chicago. My job: directing West Town Legal Services, the legal aid program I had started when I was still in law school. I was the only lawyer. My job included raising the money to pay my munificent $12,000 a year salary, and training and supervising a paralegal to help clients with welfare appeals.

West Town Legal Services started because, way back then, Chicago legal aid didn’t do family law. That meant poor women couldn’t get legal help with their most urgent legal problems: no divorces, no child support, no child custody, no legal protection from an abusive husband. We took family law cases, and also juvenile and immigration cases. We were flooded with clients from day one.

A couple of months in, the director of the settlement house said he had a volunteer who could help me, a retiring trademark attorney. A conservative, business-oriented man, he said, but with a good heart. I would have to train him, because he didn’t know anything about family law.

Scared me half to death. I was 25 years old, a woman who had to bring an attorney ID card to court to convince judges that I really was an attorney, and politically far left of center. How could I tell a 65-year-old, conservative Republican trademark attorney how to practice law or how to relate to our indigent, mostly-Spanish-speaking clients?

Chester Kolmodin turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to West Town Legal Services. His kindness and concern won over every single client he met, and his white hair and suits quickly signaled judges and court clerks that he was the real thing. As humble as he was quick to learn, he had no problem learning family law from and with me. He and Ada, his wife, soon became treasured friends.

Chester stayed on at West Town Legal Services long after I left. He volunteered there full-time, for almost two decades. We could use more volunteers like Chester in every community today.

The Encore Fellowship at Hamline is looking for more good people like Chester. Jim Scheibel thinks these people are out there:

“Baby boomers grew up asking not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country,” Scheibel said. “Now as those boomers retire, there’s a wide open opportunity for that mindset to inspire younger generations as well. As an Encore Fellow, they’ll continue to give back to their community in their new second-act career and serve as a mentor for those looking to do the same.”

Besides being a former mayor of St. Paul, Jim is the former director of AmeriCorps VISTA and Senior Corps programs under the Clinton administration. He will help Hamline match up the Encore Fellows with “nonprofits that want to tap that expertise to help guide meaningful projects ranging from operations to management that are important to an organization’s continuous improvement and success.”

I can’t imagine a better person than Jim Scheibel to head up the Encore Fellowship initiative, and I wish him and Hamline – and the Encore Fellows and the nonprofit organizations – the best of luck.

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