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D.C.'s malpractice Magi
(Published March 21, 2005)


At last December's Olender Foundation Awards gala, Jack H. Olender stood center of the Ronald Reagan Building stage. This moment was personal. Years back, Olender honored the late president, along with Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev, for their contribution to world peace. "Tear down this wall," Reagan's famous words, are a mantra Olender lives by: tearing down legal walls and building new futures.

Olender slipped into the black leather bad boy's biker jacket that "America's Most Wanted" TV host John Walsh, recipient of Olender's "Hero In Law" award, held open for him. Try as Olender did to shed his knight-in-shining-judicial-armor image, he remained one of the good guys, his impish inner child showing he was enjoying sharing the "give unto others" philanthropic ethic he learned at his father's side in their family store.

The Olender Foundation Awards began as a memorial tribute to a legal mentor, Earl H Davis, whose death in 1981 affected Olender tremendously. "Probably my best legal mentor as a trial lawyer" is how Olender describes Davis, a good-hearted man, one of the last of the old-time fight-to-the-death trial lawyers who wasn't afraid of anything.

The first awards ceremony was informal, a large office party of 200 people. Attendees included other mentors, great civil rights lawyers and philanthropists Harry Wender and Josiah Hyman. They encouraged Olender to try cases for them. Wender brought Olender to his turning point case of a little cerebral palsied girl. Olender says he was Wender's third choice.

The Olender Foundation honors local and national organizations serving the public as well as "public figures and ordinary citizens who make extraordinary contributions to society"  by countering "poverty, violence, promoting opportunity and equal justice." Guests have included Larry King, Iraq war hero Shoshanah Johnson, Jerry Lewis, Eli Wiesel, former Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, TV trial judge Joe Brown, Muhammad Ali, Sen. John Edwards, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Ms. Wheelchair America Catherine Gugala and Dr. Robert Gayle, who went to Chernobyl to treat children affected by the radioactive nuclear plant leak. Grant recipients have included the March of Dimes, the United Black Fund, Grandma's House, the D.C. Street Academy and Christopher Reeve's foundation.

Olender, courted to endow a law school, prefers to put money into people rather than into buildings. "After a few years the mission of the institution can change," he says. "They can do something else with it." Student recipients of the Olender Foundation's Earl H Davis prize are selected by their schools, such as George Washington University, Howard University Law School Legal Clinic for Social Justice, Howard University Law School, University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law Foundation. Olender, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a juris doctor degree in 1960 and from George Washington University with an LL.M. in 1961, was admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1961, to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965, to the Maryland bar in 1966 and to the bar in his home state of Pennsylvania in 1985.

"I can tell you," he says, "when I come across someone on the streets who says he or she is practicing law now and received an Olender Foundation Award that helped them, I feel good."

Olender's duties as a young boy included writing out checks his father designated as charitable donations.

"He would indicate the amounts. I would write the checks, I guess to save him time and something for me to do," he says. While some people's philanthropy is motivated by "what you give, you get back tenfold," Olender says his family gave because "charity needed to be done."

"Most of the checks I wrote were for Jewish charities, not all. My father was very dedicated to Jewish education and Jewish charity orphans. He wouldn't turn anyone away who asked," he says.

Olender never had the opportunity to see where the charitable checks went. His father was always working. "From age 10 or 12 into college, I would be there lots," father and son together in the family fruit and vegetable store, he recalls.

The young Olender was born Sept. 8, 1935, in a small town in western Pennsylvania, all of 5.2 square miles, 15 miles from Pittsburgh. By 2015, McKeesport's population may top 28,640. His childhood experiences shaped his becoming founder of Jack H. Olender & Associates PC. Known widely as the king of medical malpractice cases, he has won more than 100 cases with awards or settlements upwards of $1 million each.

Olender's desire to right wrongs came from his own experiences growing up in McKeesport. There were "maybe one or two Jews in a class," he recalls. Others attended synagogue schools. He describes running for class editor. Three grade school classes were to vote. Olender got all the votes in one class. His opponent got all the votes in the second and in the third. People told him that their teacher told them to vote against Jack. He lost. Convinced his election loss was religiously motivated, Olender learned a greater lesson. Olender voted for his opponent. "I was so naïve at that time," he says. "I thought it was improper to vote for myself." Olender also recalls how the few black persons in his school were treated. "I remember one time seeing a teacher hitting a boy on the head with a ruler," he says.

When not in school, Olender was with his father, six and a half days a week, operating their family store. Several days a week, his father took him along to Pittsburgh's produce yards, exposing him to aspects of life the boy would not have otherwise seen. Most of the workers were Italians or Jews. The laborers were almost all African-Americans, called "Negroes" at the time. A particular incident in the produce yards inspired him to write a piece in college. "Laborers were called mules. They carried heavy sacks, potatoes and all that. I remember one vendor saying, ‘The boy will get it, the boy will get it.' When the boss went away, the man he was referring to said, ‘the boy just got word his son was killed.' The boy. The boy," Olender repeats. "Those experiences sensitized me."

Olender reached out to other people, discovered new cultures while strengthening his connection toward his family's traditions. He recalls 1961 as a teaching fellow at George Washington University. He went to Uline Arena, near Union Station, for a gathering of the Black Muslims, now called the Nation of Islam. The arena was completely filled. There were maybe a dozen, at most, non-black people in the arena. "Guards patted me down. I was put in this little segregated section," he says. A young black man with a small bowtie came out. His preaching riled up the crowd. The man was Malcolm X. Olender's photo, taken with Louis Farrakhan, froze this moment in cultural history.

Olender's learning about Judaism came later in life. He credits his spirituality to his father, who died in 1962. "He knew how to … pray. He had the emotion and the passion," Olender says. Olender's mother was a softer person. The Olender home was traditional. Friday night the Sabbath table was set. The family would eat the Sabbath meal early, so Olender's father could run back to the store. Friday night and Saturday were their busiest times. "People would be buying for the weekend," he recalls.

Olender grew up open to other religions and cultures, his traditions rooted with one of America's original lawgivers, gave him greater resolve to seek justice as an attorney. Moses sits high atop the nation's Capitol and Supreme Court, blocks from his D.C. office. Olender led legal organizations as a board member, secretary, governor, and president. He received B'nai B'rith International's Pursuit of Justice Award. "As far as facts of law goes," he says, he keeps capable good people around him who "must want to help people," rather than be highly skilled but ruthless and corrupt.

The Olenders annually honor individuals they believe embody Peacemaker, Hero In Law, Children's Advocate and America's Role Model. Nowadays, Olender -- alongside former ballerina Lovell, the love of his life and backbone, he says -- gets to see who his philanthropy helps. Childless, their foundation has aided hundreds of young people over the years.

Decorating Olender's office is a mock boxing belt given to him by peers, a boxer's warm-up robe the golden color of success and boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali. Olender, a fight fan, is battling a personal war these days. He speaks softly about his wife's declining health: "Lovell is courageous. She is holding her own." An attorney, his wife has been by his side since their malpractice and liability law practice started. Olender describes an incident from when they first started their office at 711 14th St. NW. The address is no longer there. They parked in the alley. "It was in the evening. Some kind of drunk came at me with a board. Lovell fended him off." Lovell is a kind person, so enthusiastic, so nice that a judge considering moving into the Olender's residential building decided to buy there after having met Lovell when they came to look, Olender recalls.

Olender thinks the District's diversity makes it a good place to be. It was a sleepy Southern home when he arrived. Wistful, he says, all these years later, there are still two D.C.s, divided at Rock Creek Park, more socio-economically than racially, by the haves and the have-nots. East of the park and west of the park. Olender, proudly looking into his awards gala's multicultural audience, sees one people, unified.

The magic of Olender's success is cumulative: Koi, an Asian good luck fish, swimming in the lobby of his office building; the address of his office a triple 8, 8 being an auspicious number in Japan; the street number itself, 17, adding up to 8; his law suite being located on the 4th floor, half of eight. And piped through the halls, that day we spoke, fittingly, was inspirational music.

Asked if he could give three gifts to a stranger, Olender did not hesitate: Do whatever you do in a quality way; learn to try to devote some of your resources and time, assuming you've achieved anything, to bring others along; and be open minded about things. Smiling, Olender leaned in, with a fourth: "Remember the wife in the Ragu commercial? She said to her husband, accustomed to her homemade spaghetti, "You have to try new things Joseph…" – this being the greatest gift of the boy from McKeesport who grew up to become a Magi in America's legal field.

Copyright 2005, The Common Denominator