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November 16, 2021

A Special Tribute to Working With Charlie Sabatino

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

When Charlie Sabatino firmed up his intended retirement date, I was asked to reflect on my experience working with him. It has been a joy. I know I join others in wishing Charlie a happy and fulfilling retirement.

“To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children,
to leave the world a better place,
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived,
this is to have succeeded.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Charlie Sabatino is a success, his work has made the lives of countless older adults better, he has helped thousands of lawyers understand the unique legal challenges of aging, he has led research into complicated issues that cross disciplines, he is an international leader that people turn to for expertise, he has spent decades pursuing the Commission’s mission to improve the quality of life and quality of care for older adults, he has mentored staff and interns, he has made us laugh, he has listened to our moaning and he has offered wisdom and comfort in trying times.  The profession and the ABA are better for Charlie having been a part of our lives.

I have worked with Charlie since December 15th, 2008. I started just a few days before the Obama’s moved in just around the corner from our offices at the time. It was an exciting time of change in Washington, DC.  

Charlie is unlike anyone I have ever worked for. On the first day I asked about office hours, and I will never forget Charlie’s response, “As long as you get your work done, I don’t care when you show up, and when you leave, try to be here between 10:00 AM and 3:00PM. I trust you will work all of the hours that are needed.”  This was a refreshing style of management, and one that has allowed me to thrive. Yes, we do have time sheets, we do keep track, but flexibility to ebb and flow as needed, without doing things just because that is the way it is done, allows each person to do their best.  Charlie works with each person’s strengths to bring out their best.

Charlie paints the big picture and leaves it me to fill in the details. He has always been there when I needed him, but he is not into micromanaging the details of my day. Charlie’s office door is always open. In thirteen years, I can count on one hand the number of times I went to Charlie’s door, and he said, “please come back later.” I know there are times when I interrupted his train of thought or kept him from getting work done that he needed to do, yet he was always there to help me find the best answer when I needed him. 

Charlie is a natural teacher. He shares his knowledge freely. He is a substantive expert; he has been doing this work for 37 plus years. He has a deep institutional knowledge of the ABA, and helps all of us steer our way through the organizational systems (is that a nice way of saying bureaucracy?)  He has broad knowledge of the law, and policy across the spectrum of issues we work on. He is the leading national expert on understanding cognitive capacity, and the intersection of law and health care. Working with Charlie has vastly expanded my understanding of issues I only thought I knew something about when I started.

Charlie has empowered me to create or take on new projects. A couple of years into my time here, ABA entities were asked to come up with ways to generate non-dues revenue.  I suggested producing pay-per-view CLE webinars.  He asked all the right questions, and connected me with the key people in ABACLE, and I produced a webinar series for several years, that while never a huge success, generated enough to pay for the time it took for me to recruit speakers and produce the programs.  It also met two ABA goals. The ABA core value of improving the profession, and it generated non-dues revenue.  Charlie also allowed me to take on the production of the National Aging and Law Conference.  The Conference has a history going back over 30 years and the Commission has always played a role, but the original host organizations had shifted goals and priorities and the conference was in danger of ending. I had a personal history with NALC that made me want to have an active role in keeping it alive.  I went to him with a plan that had some financial risk to it, but looked like it would work, and he let me try. Going into our 8th year, we have always been able to make NALC at least cover it’s out of pocket costs, and again we are contributing to the ABA core value of improving the profession through continuing education.  The webinar series has shifted to ABACLE member value programs. This platform provides continuing education programing to ABA members as a benefit of membership. It has largely replaced the pay-per-view market.  It would have been so easy for Charlie to say, those are not things we do, or the risk is too great (the financial exposure on an in-person conference approaches $100,000) but Charlie asked the right questions, weighed the risks, and allowed me the freedom to try.  If you don’t try, you will never succeed.

Charlie has a natural calmness, something I have tried to learn.  I have seen him frustrated, but never angry (well maybe once or twice.) He knows what battles to fight, and the one to ignore. Leading by example, he has taught me to be nicer to people. He has taught me to leave angry emails in the draft box overnight, most of the time on reflection, I hit delete instead of send. 

Charlie taught me to delegate and trust.  I was on medical leave one summer and had to ask others to take on a couple of projects.  I was meddling by email and second guessing their work.  Charlie simply said, delegate and trust, they won’t make any bigger mistakes than you would.  And he was so right.  And this reflects his overall style, work with good people, and trust them to do their best.   

It has been an honor and a pleasure to work with Charlie.  He has graciously shared his wisdom. He has helped open doors and opportunities for me.  He cares about me, and my life outside of the ABA, without being intrusive.  We have celebrated accomplishments and mourned losses.

He will be missed. He leaves big shoes to fill.  We will miss him.  I wish him well, and I have his home email address and phone number to call when his wisdom is needed.  Now is the time for him to enjoy his family, his kids and grandkids, his hobbies, to travel without limitations and disconnect from the 100 plus emails that he receives most days. 

In many ways Charlie offering me this opportunity rescued me. I have mentioned to him over the years that I was pretty ground down by the work I was doing before this.  But I don’t think I have ever shared how burned out I was.  The stress had gotten the point that I woke up feeling physically unwell and I emailed the office that I was sick and wouldn’t be in.  I sat at my home computer trying to decide if I would ever go back to the office.  I had started interviewing a few weeks before, trying to figure out what to do next, I knew I needed to move on. I had interviewed with the ABA two or three weeks before; I had an interview for a grant manager position in San Francisco and project specialist with a government agency.  I was continuing to look at jobs that morning when my phone rang, and it was Charlie wanting to know if I was still interested in joining the staff at the ABA. I said yes instantly.  If he hadn’t called, well I was on the verge of leaving behind work on aging issues. I was ready to go do something – anything. The opportunity that Charlie gave me, kept me in the field of aging, working on issues I have been passionate about since I was a family caregiver as a teenager. It was the change I needed to keep me connected with the issues I care so much about.  Issues that have become my life’s work.  He leaves me in a much better place than he found me.  He leaves the work of the ABA in a much better place than he found it.  He leaves the field much more informed than he found it.