‘I only wish my mother were alive to know that she has and always will be my inspiration’
By Jan Pudlow
When Rosemary Armstrong was a girl, she watched her mother leave her alcoholic, violent husband so she could protect her children; struggle to make ends meet as a single parent, and still have a big heart for helping others.
“Although we had next to nothing, I saw my mother put her contribution envelope in the collection plate every Sunday, and heard it jingle as it fell,” Armstrong said.
“I grew up with a sense that fairness and justice were not always meted out equally, even in this great country of ours, and the certain knowledge that I could and should help people not as fortunate as I.”
At the Florida Supreme Court on January 26, Chief Justice Charles Canady announced Armstrong, a sole practitioner in Tampa, as the recipient of the court’s highest public service honor: the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award.
Spectators packing the courtroom gave her a standing ovation, after Armstrong gave credit to her mother for instilling in her a desire to provide nearly 1,200 hours of free legal service to low-income and vulnerable residents in the Tampa Bay area for 25 years.
“I only wish my mother were alive to know that she has and always will be my inspiration, and if not for her I would not be standing here today,” Armstrong said of Lillian Henriquez Armstrong, born on the island of St. Martin, who died nearly four years ago.
Chief Justice Canady called the ceremonial session “one of the most important events in our court’s annual calendar” — made even more special because it marked the 30th anniversary of the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award. Memorabilia loaned by Simon’s family was on display in the rotunda, and members of his family attended as guests of honor.
“Mr. Simon’s legacy included providing advice to countless numbers of pro bono clients, representing the unpopular and oppressed members of our society, and teaching this same ethic to scores of students,” Canady said of the tireless civil rights lawyer who died from cancer in 1982 at age 52.
Simon’s legacy is carried out whenever a Florida lawyer agrees to represent an indigent client for free.
Florida Bar President Scott Hawkins said he was extremely proud that, during FY 2010-11, Florida lawyers contributed more than $4.8 million to legal aid and over 1.6 million hours of pro bono service.
“Today’s a very special day, not only for everyone in this courtroom, but also for the many thousands of Floridians who have received legal assistance through the volunteer efforts and direct pro bono service of lawyers,” Hawkins said.
Sean Desmond, president of the Young Lawyers Division, said he looked for an attorney with a “sense of humility and selflessness” to receive the YLD Pro Bono Service Award, and found those qualities in abundance in Timothy Moran of Oviedo.
Desmond read the nomination letter from Lena Smith, pro bono coordinator of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida: “What is truly amazing about Timothy is that he was born with cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. He is unable to write, but utilized FAMU law students to take notes during client interviews. These students learn valuable client interview skills, in addition to providing assistance to Tim.
“He utilizes computer technology — Dragon Naturally Speaking technology — to dictate and complete pleadings for his clients. Timothy has demonstrated his ability to get the job done, with no task being too great or too small. His can-do attitude and great sense of humor make him one in a million.”
Moran zoomed in his power chair to accept his award and delivered a speech that brought tears to a few justices’ eyes.
Quoting Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet, Moran said: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I may do to any fellow human being, let me do it now.”
“The quotation really hit home with me,” Moran said. “You do pro bono work because it is the right thing to do.”
Then Moran shared a poignant story about one of his pro bono clients, a woman behind on her payments and in foreclosure.
“She used to own the land that her house was on, that she had purchased with her husband. But she had been induced, because she was told that her home wasn’t livable, to sell her house and to sell the equity in the land to someone else,” Moran explained.
“So now we have a woman who is paying a mortgage on a mobile home on land she no longer owns. And the mobile home, may I add, was exceedingly poorly built.
“I was able, working with Roberto Cruz [at Community Legal Services], to analyze the deed, and, through some defects, able to reverse it and get her land back free and clear, which she now owns.
“I will never forget the day we finished and signed the last of the paperwork in my office. She said, ‘Mr. Moran, does that mean I can plant my tulips where I want?’
“And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’
“That, to me, typifies why we do what we do.”
Moran thanked the court and Smith, “a wonderful woman to whom I simply just can’t say, ‘no.’”
Like Moran, Armstrong has gladly said “yes” to repeated requests for her pro bono services.
“Maybe, as F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly said, ‘Rich people are different than you and me.’ But I know from firsthand experience that poor people are pretty much like everyone else in ways that really count.
“Most work hard, are good parents, and hope for a better future for their families,” Armstrong said.
“If there is a difference, it is that poor people in America are much more vulnerable than their fellow citizens. They are like tightrope walkers without a safety net, vulnerable as they maneuver through life. Any misstep can send them plummeting. Fear and uncertainty are often present.”
Armstrong once endured that reality. She described her mother as “although bright, her formal education was very limited, and English was not her first language.”
When Armstrong was a toddler, her mother divorced her father, who was in the Army but paid “minimal” child support and no spousal support.
“My mother stayed at home with my brother and me for as long as she could, but money was too tight. My mother’s favorite expression, however, was, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ And, undaunted, she devised a plan to improve our prospects. She enlisted the aid of the nuns at the parish school my brother attended. She talked them into letting me attend kindergarten a year early while she worked in the school office.
“But life was still too hard for us in Texas, so we moved to Jacksonville to live with my aunt while my mother found a job there.
“Years of struggle passed. Then prayers seemed answered when my mother was married and we moved to Miami, where her new husband was working. Unfortunately, my stepfather had a bad problem he and all our prayers could not fix. He was an alcoholic who became violent when he drank. And he drank often then. My teenage brother tried to protect our mother. The violence spread.”
Armstrong and her mother moved to an apartment, and her 16-year-old brother went into the Army. Against that personal backdrop, Armstrong can easily empathize with the clients she helps.
“Of all the pro bono cases and matters I have handled, it is representing victims of domestic violence, almost always clients with children, that has touched my life in the most profound way,” said Armstrong, who is linked with clients through Tampa’s Bay Area Legal Services and its volunteer lawyer program.
Noting that the organization received more than 60,000 requests for services in 2011 but could only help about 50,000, Armstrong made a plea to help legal services organizations suffering from “unprecedented funding cuts” and to support The Florida Bar Foundation.
“I am privileged not just to be the lawyer obtaining justice for these families, but also to be a hero of sorts to them,” Armstrong said.
“The legal problems poor people face are often significant enough to adversely affect their futures. When we, for example, save their homes, banish violence from their lives, or place an abused child in a safe home, we give our clients justice — and change the course of their lives for the better.”