Bar News - June 12, 2009
From Budapest to Plainfield
By: Ellen Arnold
Yikes! No more free bottled water? Weíre freezing salaries? Our clients are putting the brakes on new projects? Whatís next?
Itís a bleak time to be a lawyer, thatís for sure! Our lives are full of stress and concern for our own futures, not to mention worries about what the world will look like when we finally turn it over to our children. We live with angst over our apparent failure to produce meaningful improvements in the lives of those around us. My experience is no different from yours Ė tighter budgeting, fewer luxuries, and a general sense of a world where the possibilities seem so much more constrained than just a few years ago. In private moments, I have found myself ruminating about the general misfortunes of being a lawyer in 2009, with an economic meltdown in hand, clients and legal opportunities shrinking by the minute, and challenges everywhere. A quick look at my 401(K) statement only increases the malaise.
These self-absorbed thoughts were rudely interrupted the other day (actually it was night) when I suddenly had a clear and bright mental image of my paternal grandfather. I think the right term is an epiphany. I immediately understood the essence of his image in my mind.
All my grandparents were first-generation Americans. My grandfatherís family were Hungarian Jews from a small town on the outskirts of Budapest. His story was always my favorite. My Grandpa Max Lefkowich sailed from Hungary to America, alone, as an eleven-year-old. I can envision him waiting on a cold bench on Ellis Island, for immigration confirmation and a train ticket to family relatives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Speaking no English, he made his way to his new home. His aunts and uncles made sure he learned the language, went to school, and put him to work with his uncles in their wholesale grocery business.
At first he worked before and after school and then on a full-time basis once he ended his schooling. He was essentially in charge of the "produce department" which forced him to learn about both produce and people, buying from local farmers to satisfy customer demand. As a young man, he wanted more and saw opportunities that others didnít. His energy, hard work, keen observation, and ability to work with a variety of people led him to take risks in a rapidly changing world, in order to build a future.
He asked permission from his uncles to start his own business. He knew, as only an immigrant could, that he could not achieve success alone, but needed the support and love of others. He knew that doing the right thing, treating people honestly, fairly, and respectfully was what would hold his family in good stead and build the foundation of his American success story.
With the consent of his family, my grandfather started a business of his own. In order to gain a competitive edge, he would wake at the crack of dawn and travel to the outskirts of the city to buy fresh vegetables from the local farmers he had come to know. In this way, he got the best at the best price. His own business began to thrive and ultimately after two years, he sold it to his uncles because he wanted another new and different challenge. His success and relationship with his uncles again afforded him the ability to continue to grow and pursue new opportunities.
Because he had friends in Cleveland, my grandfather decided to move there and work at their amusement park, Luna Park, where he opened and operated a roller skating rink. Itís hard to imagine Clevelandís Luna Park of the early 1900s in comparison to the magnitude of the areaís current Cedar Point amusement park (think Six Flags), but it is a reminder that novel ideas can become cultural successes. Our society is dynamic and changes as our world changes. And so it was for my grandfather, who started with a novel idea and watched it grow.
The final and most flamboyant innovation for my grandfather grew from this exposure to this world of "entertainment." In 1908, the young man who had traveled to the United States 20 years before, opened the first nickelodeon in the City of Cleveland. It was called The Wonderland. It was a brand new idea, borne from the vitality and dreams of the pioneers of that time. After years of hard work and the pursuit of new challenges and ideas, this became my familyís business. My grandfatherís willingness to embrace change created opportunities that otherwise would not have existed.
When my father returned from World War II, after serving as a Navy pilot, his dream was to become a commercial pilot. But it was his turn to reciprocate the love and support of his father and when my grandfather asked him to devote one year to the business to see if he liked it, my father agreed. It was a good fit for my dad, who surprised himself with the passion and energy he had for the movie business. Most of us know how the movie industry has changed through our lifetimes, in part reflected by the shift from large single screen theaters to multiplexes.
My grandfather and father remained adaptable and worked tirelessly to keep their theaters at the cutting edge. While the business was eventually sold to a large national chain, at that point my grandfatherís idea had grown from a single nickelodeon to dozens of screens throughout Ohio.
So, what was that epiphany or sudden intuitive realization brought to me by my grandfather? Simply put, we need not dwell on the past, but need to look to the future. In these lean times, for every calamity there is an opportunity. Itís all in the lens through which we see events. My grandfatherís story is redolent of the American experience, then and now. As individual lawyers, whatever reversals we have suffered over the past year can be recouped by hard work, vision and the same principles that guided my grandfather.
This is my last article as Bar president. Someone once said: "I have made this article longer than Iíd like, because I lack the time to write it short!" Thank you for indulging me this one last time and for helping me, in so many small ways, make this year an empowering and enjoyable experience.
Ellen L. Arnold, the 2008-2009 NHBA President, is associate general counsel of Dartmouth College.