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Published: Monday, 1/3/2005

Attorney is dedicated to serving the poor

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Joe Tafelski: Director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality. Joe Tafelski: Director of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.
LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

Like a commander of a ship in the middle of a stormy ocean, Joe Tafelski has directed Advocates for Basic Legal Equality through some turbulent times as the leader of the nonprofit agency that provides legal services to the poor.

Mr. Tafelski, 58, the agency's executive director for 24 years, was honored last month with the Denis Murphy Award from the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation. The foundation is one of the major funders for legal service agencies in the state, set up by the Ohio legislature in 1994.

The foundation cites Mr. Tafelski's long service to ABLE, and its sister agency, Legal Aid of Western Ohio. The organization recently started providing services as far south as the Dayton area.

The award is given annually to recognize outstanding leadership and advocacy on behalf of legal aid clients in Ohio. The award was created in 1998 in honor of the foundation's board president, Denis Murphy.

"Joe exemplifies the professional and personal qualities that make him an outstanding legal service advocate, working diligently to improve access to justice for the poor," said David Weiner, president of the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation board of directors. "Joe has demonstrated leadership qualities on the local, regional, and state levels and through his work as executive director."

Mr. Tafelski worked with ABLE in the early stages as a staff attorney. After a stint with the Fair Housing Center as its general counsel, he rejoined ABLE as its executive director in 1980.

Mr. Tafelski said he sees the award as recognition of the agency's work, and not necessarily his own.

"Joe Tafelski didn't do this all by himself," said Mr. Tafelski, who graduated from Boston College Law School before first joining ABLE in 1972. "We have 110 employees, 60 of them lawyers, who are just as committed as I am, and any of them would have been just as worthy," Mr. Tafelski said. "I really think this is a noteworthy accomplishment for our organization and staff."

William Bingle, president of the ABLE board and an attorney with Bingle & Henderson, of Toledo, nominated Mr. Tafelski for the award.

In his nomination letter, he said Mr. Tafelski helped guide ABLE through the changing times in the legal assistance community.

"During his career at ABLE, Joe has successfully responded to a number of challenges, including budget cuts, staff reductions, government-imposed restrictions, a major program reorganization, and several restructuring and consolidations with other legal service providers," Mr. Bingle said in his letter.

"I know of no other person who better exemplifies an absolute commitment to furthering the mission of providing legal services and equal access to justice to the poor."

The attitude toward legal services for the poor has changed over the past three decades years, Mr. Tafelski said. Legislators and judges have made it more difficult for the poor to access the legal system, presenting greater challenges to agencies like ABLE. He said ABLE has had to change with the times.

He said ABLE or LAWO have had to find political and legislative solutions now for issues where they may have gone to court in the agency's earlier days.

"The ABLE today is not the ABLE of 35 years ago," Mr. Tafelski said. "I see us as a nonprofit law firm and we've provided quality legal services for the past 35 years."

Mr. Tafelski met his wife, Jen, while he was at the Fair Housing Center. The couple's oldest son, Mike, 23, is a law student at the University of Cincinnati. Their daughter, Katie, 9, is a student at Ladyfield School. Mr. Tafelski also has a bachelor's degree from Xavier University in Cincinnati and master's from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In February, Mr. Tafelski said he will follow another dream of his when he travels to India to help vaccinate children against polio during National Immunization Days through Rotary International.

Mr. Tafelski said the trip was a way to protect thousands of children from polio and be a part of an international effort to help the poor in a country like India.

Contact Clyde Hughes at: chughes@theblade.com or 419-724-6095.


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