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Vol. 30, No. 2

Past lives: Lessons from bar execs’ prior jobs

by Theodore Stellwag

Life’s lessons are learned in many places, including past jobs—even those summer jobs that seem unrelated to what we hope to end up doing. Every job gives something to be carried forward to future work and to our lives.

Bar Leader spoke with four bar executives about their previous work. It ranged from a summer job on the railroad to running an airline; from helping people in crisis to editing a newspaper. Each prior job changed the person in some way. Here are their stories in profile.

—By Theodore Stellwag


Lyn Flanigan
Executive director, Hawaii State Bar Association

Lyn Flanigan can see the ocean from her ninth floor office in Honolulu and a midmorning rainbow over the mountains beyond the city. She came to this office as the Hawaii state bar’s executive director in 2003. “It’s a long way from Paoli, Ind.,” she says. Flanigan earned her first paycheck there, reading to other kids in the library on Friday afternoons.

She waitressed in a dormitory as a student at Mills College in California. Mills offered a major in Asian studies. “I got hooked,” she says. “It changed my life.” Flanigan spent a summer studying in Japan and won a grant from the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. She stayed for 17 years as a graduate student and staff member, returning later to serve on the governing board.

Indonesian judges who studied at the center were presiding at human rights trials in their country. A female lawyer from Bangladesh was trying to retrieve children sold into the human trade. “You meet these people and know the day-to-day issues we deal with are de minimis in comparison,” Flanigan says. She received her law degree while working at the center. After five years with a firm, she became senior counsel for a foundation educating Hawaiian children, using trust funds generated from the lands of legendary King Kamehameha.

In 1997, she was appointed vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of Hawaiian Airlines. “It was a whirlwind,” she says. “9/11 changed the whole industry culture overnight. Airlines were struggling to survive. Technology is everything—and the ability to reach customers and change very quickly.” Flanigan says she and other officers were terminated just before the company filed for bankruptcy.

Flanigan believes the marketing and technology aspects of airline work benefit her as a bar exec. So do the people skills rooted in mid-America and honed by a lifetime of international experience. “There is such diversity here and so many good volunteers,” she says. “These are my people. I gently encourage them to participate.”


Kimberly A. Coleman
Executive director, Grand Rapids Bar Association

Kim Coleman had the fishing worm concession on the south side of Saginaw, Mich., growing up with her grandparents and sister. Her grandmother helped dig in the backyard after dark. Sales were brisk at 75 cents a dozen. She also braided hair, with neighborhood kids lined up for cornrows.

At 14 she got her first payroll job at a community center, then did office work at an elementary school. The principal became a mentor and pointed Coleman toward college after a guidance counselor told her she would never qualify. “His mentorship had the most impact on me,” she says.

Coleman attended Jackson State in Mississippi, doing alterations in a tailor shop to help pay college expenses. She graduated with a degree in social work and earned her master’s in social work from the University of Louisville. “If you’re a social worker, you look at ways to make an impact on the lives of others,” she says. “I’m a change agent.”

Coleman worked as a crisis therapist and supervisor at mental health centers in Saginaw. “Many of the people were suicidal or experiencing some psychotic episode,” she says. “I would develop a plan to help them get through those critical times.” Coleman recalls a young man she knew from childhood who wanted to apply for what he called, “the next God position.” He was shot down by police. A potentially violent patient threatened her after hours, and a crisis hotline caller contemplated suicide, then hung up. “That scared me,” she says, “but he didn’t do it.”

Coleman says this work, along with managing a YMCA and a single-parent facility, made her more compassionate. “I have a gift to help people turn things around, to move from conflict to resolution,” she says. Coleman has also done corporate training and is working on her doctorate in adult continuing education. She took those career experiences to the Grand Rapids bar four years ago: “You help people see themselves through another lens. . . . I feel good at the end of the day.”


Tim Hazen
Executive director, Connecticut Bar Association

Tim Hazen’s newspaper career began in the fourth grade with the Republican-American, which he delivered to his neighbors in Watertown, Conn. One grateful customer tipped him with an annual visit to Yankee Stadium. Hazen says it was “the highlight of my young life—that and books. I spent my childhood reading.” Huckleberry Finn and Stuart Little were regular companions, along with Miss Whiteside, the town librarian. He was her best customer.

Hazen’s summer jobs included work in a button factory. At Trinity College in Hartford, he and a roommate delivered office furniture. “The heavy oak desks always went to places without elevators, but we survived,” he says. “It was a good job.”

After college, the Peace Corps sent him to the Philippines to teach farmers how to grow rice. “They had done it for a couple thousand years and were pretty good at it,” he says. Hazen was reassigned to control the rodent population. Imelda Marcos, then the first lady, came to his village: “She had an aura—the most charismatic person I ever met,” he recalls. Mrs. Marcos suspected he was a CIA agent. Hazen says the Peace Corps changed his life. “I was from a small town,” he notes. “These people were different from me.”

He returned home with an itch to travel throughout North America, landing finally in Colorado, where he was reunited with newspapering. As news editor of the Sage-Reminder in Glenwood Springs, Hazen wrote and edited copy, took photos, did layout, and helped set lead type. Headlines were shared by the continuing water shortage and high school basketball. Three decades and several jobs later, Tim Hazen still thinks of himself as a writer, “even though the longest piece I write now is an e-mail.”

Hazen became CBA executive director in 1999 after several years on the bar staff. He celebrated with a 31-day, cross-country bicycle trip from Florence, Ore., to Slaughter Beach, Del. He says newspaper work taught him “how to talk to people and be a better listener.” Hazen believes communication skills are essential for an executive director: “This job is about selling the association. It’s what we do.”


Denny L. Ramey
Executive director, Ohio State Bar Association

There is a rhythm to the cadence of long-handled hammers hitting railroad spikes. The bing, bing, bing is the signature sound of the gandy dancers who built and maintained America’s railroads. Denny Ramey didn’t know much about the work when he hired on as a summer employee for the Baltimore & Ohio. “I thought you could make a lot of money sitting on the train and waving to folks,” he recalls.

Ramey had several summer jobs in and around Portsmouth, Ohio, which he describes as a “tough little river town in Appalachia.” At 16, he sold candy and cigarettes in his uncle’s drugstore for 60 cents an hour. Ramey made pig iron and swept floors at a steel mill when he couldn’t get a coat and tie job at the men’s clothing store. He inspected 400 refrigerators a day for Westinghouse until a strike closed the plant.

None of that prepared him for the railroad job after his sophomore year at Ohio University. Amos, the foreman, spoke few words while simultaneously smoking cigars and chewing tobacco. He patted the new man on the stomach, then on his back and said, “Son, we’re going to take that off here and put it there.”

Ramey’s on-the-job training was critiqued by the older men. “When a college boy took his first crack at hammering, they’d all watch,” he says. His mighty swing missed the spike and careened off a rail, to the amusement of his audience. “When you could drive a spike in three licks, you arrived,” Ramey recalls. He won a rare compliment from his boss. “I was working my butt off,” he says. “Amos took the cigar out of his mouth and said, ‘You’re a good man, Ramey.’” He earned $2.35 an hour to help pay for college.

Ramey has been OSBA executive director since 1986. He says summer jobs such as this one let him “rub up against different kinds of people. You learn what motivates them … how to work with them.” Sitting in his river-view office with original art and an antique armoire, he remembers something else: “I knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”