chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
November 16, 2021

A Tribute to Charlie Sabatino

The PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 43 Issue 2.

After over 37 years at the Commission on Law and Aging, Charlie Sabatino, director of the Commission, recently announced his plans to retire at the end of January 2022. Several colleagues past and present wanted to share thoughts of appreciate to Charlie.

Jack Rives, Executive Director - American Bar Association

Charlie is a legend in Law and Aging!  His more than 37 years of service with the American Bar Association have been exemplary!!  His work as Director of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging has been spectacular, in every respect.  He has a long list of accomplishments, and his efforts set a standard of genuine excellence.  We will work to build on his achievements in the future.  Now is the time to applaud his service and wish Charlie the very best in the years ahead!!!

Nancy Coleman, Director of the Commission on Law and Aging 1979-2005

Charlie arrived at the ABA Commission with the following on his plate:  cases to complete for his previous employer: Northern Virginia Legal Services for the Elderly, a new daughter, a spouse who was finishing her doctoral dissertation and also starting a new position.  He told me, the current director of the Commission, that he needed time to complete his case obligations and he thought that the Commission would provide a couple of years of respite from individual representation.  We all know how that turned out.  Charlie never left the Commission. Charlie arrived at the Commission 5 years after I did in 1979 and has remained 16 years after I left through 2021. His contributions are vast, and his impact goes beyond the field.  

Louraine Arkfeld, Past Chair 2018-2021

I had the absolute pleasure of serving with Charlie while I was the Chair of the Commission on Law and Aging from 2018-2021.  I had been actively engaged in the ABA for over 34 years when I started in that role.  And I have no hesitation in saying it was the best three years I spent in the work of the ABA.  His leadership and knowledge in his areas of expertise are simply unparalleled in the ABA – or for that matter outside of the ABA.  He is truly one of our shining lights.  We had the challenge of living through unprecedented budget cuts followed by the even more unprecedented pandemic.  Yet he shifted and adjusted, and the work continued at its high standard and the meetings and conferences went on Zoom as if he had planned it all along.  And he always kept his droll sense of humor throughout it all.  (Do people realize what a funny man he can be?)  I felt privileged to work with him and even more honored to consider him a friend.  He is truly the best of the best.

Patricia Banks, Past Chair 2015-2018

During his tenure as Director of The Commission on  Law and Aging, Charlie Sabatino created an indelible blueprint for its growth and sustainability.  While I would love to see Charlie remain at the helm of the Commission on Law and Aging, I am confident of its sustainability as Charlie moves on to a new chapter in his life.  I was proud to chair the Commission on Law and Aging not only because of its mission, but because of Charlie's strong and effective leadership. Charlie's collaborative management style fostered an environment in which staff, commissioners and others, who worked to bring about equity for older adults, were free to initiate, explore and implement policy and programs to enhance their lives. Charlie used his contacts, networks and vast knowledge to support and promote those in the public, private and governmental sectors who shared his interest and commitment to improving the quality of life for older adults.  Thank you Charlie for a job well done!!

David English, Past Chair 2012-2015

Charlie may not remember when he and I first met but I do. It was in the Fall of 1991 at the first meeting of the drafting committee of what became the 1993 Uniform Health-Care Decisions Act. That first meeting was the beginning of what was to become for me a 30-year relationship with the Commission. Charlie and I have worked together almost continuously since that 1991 meeting on more ABA and Uniform Law projects than I could possibly count. What has impressed me most about Charlie is his enormous depth of knowledge on numerous subjects, such as health-care decisions, and his consummate skill in applying that knowledge in a very practical way. He is also a very effective leader. The opportunity to Chair the Commission was a pure joy. Somehow, the administrative detail that can bog one down in chairing a non-profit board disappeared. Charlie, and his very able staff, had sweated the details. Although Charlie will technically be retiring, I assume that he really isn’t quitting work but is taking the opportunity to do less but on his own time. I suspect that he will have his hand in, as will I, commission projects for many years to come.

Joe O’Connor, Past Chair 2003-2005

I had the great privilege of working with Charlie and the COLA staff a few years ago. I quickly learned that he had assembled some of the best and brightest lawyers in the country with tremendous experience and knowledge of aging issues.  And he was clearly the leader. I learned so much from this marvelous group.   I count Charlie as one of the many wonderful people my involvement in the ABA has allowed me to get to know. Best wishes for his retirement.

Trisha Bullock, Associate Editor 2000-Present

Working with Charlie over the past several years has been a joy. Charlie has been more than a director, a boss or colleague, he has been a true friend. The commission has always fostered a sense of family environment. When Charlie replaced Nancy Coleman as the director of the commission, that family environment continued. My mind and heart overflows with examples, gestures of kindness and instances of how Charlie’s leadership balanced with friendship has impacted my life. There have been countless invitations to his home to break bread. He attended the funerals of my mother-in-law and sister. He and his wife Chris visited me at my home while I was on medical leave and Charlie has on several occasions provided trustworthy guidance and direction when end of life decisions and other health matters touched me and my family in a very deep and personal way. Charlie even offered for me to stay at his home while my sister was in intensive care at a hospital just minutes from his home, so that I wouldn’t have to travel back and forth every day. This is just a handful of examples that come to mind.

There have also been innumerable  instances where Charlie provided a listening ear and guidance when I needed direction on work projects and other work-related challenges. He has often stepped in and performed administrative tasks to assist me when my work plate was full. As David mentioned, Charlie puts complete confidence in his staff. He delegates the assignments and allows us to complete them with freedom and flexibility tempered will helpful advice to make our projects shine even more. Speaking of delegating assessments, several years ago while being short staffed, Charlie and David asked me to design our yearly conference program. I had never done that kind of work and to be quite honest I had zero confidence that I’d be able to pull it off. But I successfully completed it with the encouragement and suggestions from Charlie and David.

I will be forever grateful for the confidence that Charlie has placed in me and all the assignments he entrusted me with that I thought I’d never be able to perform, all of which has led me to the position I now have with the commission. In many ways, working with Charlie has made me a better person. Since working with Charlie, I have grown to become much more confident, patient, especially with myself, and creative. I have learned that I am capable of much more than I give myself credit for. These are skills I look forward to improving on. Even though Charlie is moving on to a much-deserved retirement, he will forever hold a place in my heart not just as a past colleague but a true friend. Charlie, I wish you good health, many memorable trips and adventures and best of times with friends and family.

Elizabeth Moran, Staff Attorney 2021- Present

It has been said that the best bosses inspire and influence you through their caring and authentic leadership, and their exceptional interpersonal skills. Charlie Sabatino is one of those “best bosses.”  He daily demonstrates all of the best qualities of a leader in his kindness, authenticity, reliability, mentorship, compassion, and inspiration. Indeed, working with and under Charlie’s leadership has truly been both a blessing and honor.

When I applied for a position with COLA earlier this year, my knowledge of Charlie was solely of his extensive work and expertise on capacity issues, advanced care planning, and surrogate decision-making. I was already a huge fan. My passion has, for a long time, been on quality of life, civil rights, and justice for all individuals, regardless of capacity or disability, and Charlie Sabatino’s research and resources were among those I deeply admired. I knew this was someone I wanted to work with and learn from. With Charlie as Director, it was a team I very much wanted to be on.

In preparation for my final interview with Charlie and the COLA team, I remember calling upon a few colleagues and friends that I thought might be able to give me some insights to the culture and nuances inside the ABA. Unsurprisingly, all of the feedback I received was positive and included, “he’s exceptional” and “…would be an excellent boss.” Oh, how right they were.  What I’ve experienced since then and among my favorite things about Charlie as a mentor and leader:

  • He genuinely cares about and believes in each and every one of us on his team and because of this, we are all fiercely loyal to him.
  • He is one of the most empathetic colleagues I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. His kindness (and patience!) is seemingly endless.
  • He is authentic, shows appreciation, rarely takes the credit (despite often doing most of the work), and is truly engaged in his – and all of our – work.
  • He takes the time to personally connect with us and shows concern for all us both in and outside of the office. It means a great deal.
  • He fosters an environment that boosters self-confidence and mutual respect.
  • He creates opportunities for any of us who are interested to advance and develop new skills.
  • He is open to new ideas, isn’t quick to judge, and an expert at handling adversarial and seemingly high-stakes conversations with grace, kindness, and fairness.

For all of the above and so much more, I’m grateful to have been able to work with and under Charlie’s leadership these past eight months. It has truly been an honor. As anyone who has worked with Charlie knows, he isn’t just an exceptional leader, he’s what we call “good people.” Undoubtedly, among the very best.

My wish for Charlie is a retirement filled with lots of time spent with family and friends, filled with love and laughter, and doing all of his favorite things. With all of the administrative “stuff” out of his way, I’m confident that this next chapter of advocacy and contributions to making the world a better and more just place for all of us to experience law and aging will be equally – if not more so – impactful, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. Congratulations, Charlie!

Sonia Arce, Office Manager 2004 - Present

Charlie, looking back at how many years we have been at the ABA and how being part of the Commission has been such a great place to be and work at, it really feels like family. Your leadership has been inspirational. Your guidance, advice and your time here has been a true gift to us all. Thank you for being such a wonderful and caring boss. You will be greatly missed. I wish you the best in what awaits you in your retirement. With much appreciation!

Erica Wood, Assistant Director  1980 - 2020

I already knew Charlie before he came to the ABA for what he thought might be a short stint – in 1984, the year we each had baby daughters born.  Charlie had done all kinds of stellar things at Arlington Legal Aid.  So I knew from the start that he would be a gem.  And I was right.  It was not long before he distinguished himself and the Commission with The Black Box of Home Care Quality. And then of course he went on to become a foremost expert on health care decision-making and advance planning, pioneering all sorts of innovations. How amazing that he got Helen Hayes to appear in the In Your Hands video promoting advance directives (look closely at this classic piece, and you’ll see a younger looking Charlie in the background!) -- and then later got her son to describe how comforting it was for him to have her directive when needed.  Charlie’s tool kits and guides on advance planning – and even a smartphone app – have changed the landscape. And Charlie helped to blaze trails on many other law and aging fronts such as nursing home policy and long-term care, capacity assessment, and legal ethics.

But there’s much more.  Throughout his years at the ABA, Charlie taught a law school class on law and aging; he was a leader in and president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys; and active in the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations.

While Charlie was clearly a national frontrunner in law and aging, he was also always there and on point within the ABA, guiding the Commission staff and meeting the Association’s needs.  Outsiders might not know the hours he spent on ABA budgets and reports, as well as fundraising; and ABA insiders might not be familiar with his substantive high profile nationally. But Commission staff saw both sides. And we knew that he was always kind to his staff, fair, flexible, upbeat, accessible, and could see the humor in many situations. While I knew all this, I didn’t fully understand the demands of the job until Charlie’s bike accident, when as the Commission’s assistant director, I had to step into his big shoes for two or three months!!

Other memories are set in the welcoming Arlington home of Charlie and Chris. Every summer they held a picnic there for the interns, but over time it really became a staff tradition -- with people chatting on the deck and kids on the big swing, all set against the leafy backyard. And in December, they would host a holiday party complete with paper bag lights on the walkway.  It will be hard to think of the ABA Commission without Charlie – but I am betting he will continue to shine in law and aging, and in just being himself.

Carole Fleck, Editor 2019 - 2020

Charlie was an absolute joy to work with and an invaluable asset to the ABA community. He had a remarkable career that greatly influenced a generation of lawyers and left an indelible mark on the non-profit world. Charlie cared deeply about the people who benefited from his work, and he cared deeply for each of us on his team at the ABA. We were blessed to have him as our boss. Charlie, I wish you the very best - good health, time with grandchildren, and more Rick Steves travel - in this new chapter. Be well, my friend. 

Dari Pogach, Senior Attorney 2018-2020

Charlie is a generous and empathetic boss and I will always be grateful to him for supporting my professional development and encouraging me to put my family first. In March 2020, when we were grappling with the first days of the pandemic, Charlie’s leadership was put to the most awful test imaginable when our colleague Lori became gravely ill. Charlie was there for Lori at every step of her last days, going way beyond the duties of a director. I am grateful to Charlie for providing me with an example of a strong and kind leader to emulate professionally and personally. 

Naomi Karp, Staff Attorney 1988 - 2005

When I arrived at the ABA Commission in 1988, not knowing I would stay for 17 years (!), there was Charlie already established and contributing to the nation’s discussion of health care decision-making and other key aging issues. And there he has been ever since, a rock, calm, smart, insightful, always filled with ideas and answers. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to continue to work with him as I moved on to AARP, CFPB and other pursuits. I know he will continue to be our rock star as he moves into his next stage, and I look forward to continuing to partner with him and to seeing the ways in which he keeps sharing his great brain and spirit with the worlds of policy and practice. 

Leslie Fried, Staff Attorney 1998-2012

I fondly remember working alongside Charlie during my 14 years at the Commission on Law Aging. He was a wonderful colleague, passionate, smart and dedicated. He listened patiently when I expressed frustration, or needed guidance, and offered sound, thoughtful counsel. As a leader, Charlie ably advocated for adoption of policy changes within the ABA, as well as to external entities, to ensure enactment of policies to protect the legal rights of older adults. I will always remember when the DC area was trembling due to an earthquake in August 2011, it was Charlie who ushered our group into the small bathroom across from our offices. He expressed surprise that none of us experienced an earthquake in the past.  On a personal note, it was, in part, because of Charlie’s frequent praise and sagas of Madison that my son (like his) attended University of Wisconsin, which became a frequent topic of conversation. Thank you, Charlie for your friendship and mentorship while I was at the Commission. I am forever grateful. Fare Thee Well!