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OCLRE Executive Director Deborah DeHaan to retire July 31

In Celebration of Deborah DeHaan, executive director, Ohio Center for Law-Related Education

By Richard A. Dove, Esq.
Member and Past President, Board of Trustees
Ohio Center for Law-Related Education

As lawyers, we occasionally encounter a layperson who shares our appreciation for the rule of law and an understanding of its importance to maintaining a democratic society. Such a person is an asset to the legal profession because they recognize the significance of our work, appreciate the many societal contributions made by judges and lawyers, and engage in activities to instill a greater understanding of the law in other citizens.

For nearly 30 years, our profession has been graced with such an individual in Deborah DeHaan. This year, Deb’s long affiliation with law-related education comes to an end with her retirement as Executive Director of the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education. Although we are saddened by her imminent retirement we celebrate her service to OCLRE and her commitment to our profession and to law-related education.

Deb’s involvement with law-related education began in the mid-1980s when she covered the burgeoning Ohio Mock Trial Program as a reporter for WBNS television in Columbus. After leaving the media and joining the staff of the Columbus Bar Association and later the Ohio State Bar Association, Deb served as a volunteer for the local mock trial competitions and later was appointed by consecutive OSBA presidents to serve as that organization’s representative on the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education board of trustees.

In the late 1990s, the OCLRE board was seeking a new executive director to lead the organization into the new millennium and bring a new focus and purpose to an organization whose reach may have exceeded its grasp. After interviewing several prospective directors who had experience in nonprofit administration, fundraising, and education, the board realized the ideal candidate was someone who shared our devotion to law-related education. That person was our friend and colleague Deb DeHaan.

Just as our nation has its Founding Fathers, so too does OCLRE.  In the early 1980s, James Phillips, Benson Wolman, and Anthony Celebrezze, Jr. had the vision to establish the mock trial program and OCLRE as a means of promoting law-related education in Ohio. As an early volunteer and trustee, Deb DeHaan worked with the founders to establish the organization a promote its mission. As the organization’s executive director, Deb extended the vision of its founders in a manner consistent with their intent and purpose in creating the organization.

Deb was hired as executive director during the teenage years of OCLRE’s development. Like many teenagers, the organization was experiencing rapid growth, had insufficient revenues, and lacked a clear vision for its future. Deb immediately took steps to address the life-blood of any successful organization—people and money. She reworked the table of organization, providing staff with a clear reporting structure and specific program assignments. She tackled the budget, by reallocating resources and working to secure new sources of funding for programs that were financially untenable.

Deb also saw that every OCLRE program was evaluated both professionally and by program participants and attendees. These evaluations helped the organization identify what was important to our mission and our constituents and ascertain areas for improvement. She made difficult decisions to end some programs and redirect limited financial and staff resources to improving those programs that best served OCLRE’s core mission. Much like the students who participate in OCLRE activities or are taught by teachers who attend OCLRE training programs, the organization emerged from its awkward teenage years with a clear sense of purpose, confidence, and maturity, and was well-prepared to face adulthood and the attendant challenges and opportunities. Because of Deb’s commitment and leadership, OCLRE is strong and vibrant as it enters its fourth decade.

During Deb’s tenure, OCLRE became the largest independent provider of original law and citizenship programs in the United States. Each year, approximately 48,000 Ohio students benefit from OCLRE programming through participation in classroom and extra-curricular activities. Deb also extended the reach of law-related education programs to inner city and rural school districts, where quality educational resources and opportunities often are lacking. She was instrumental in fostering the development of the Ohio Law and Leadership Institute, an organization that introduces minority and educationally disadvantaged students to the legal profession through an intensive college preparatory program in law and leadership.

For all of Deb’s talents, there is none more noteworthy than her ability to assemble, manage and motivate staff. During her tenure, she has attracted a number of talented individuals to the OCLRE staff, and many of those individuals have remained on staff for far longer than one would expect given the demands of the job and comparatively low pay. As a manager, Deb gave each staff person specific responsibilities that corresponded to their talents and interests and provided opportunities for growth that were rewards beyond what remuneration could provide. Deb’s approach to managing staff fostered a deep commitment to the mission and purpose of OCLRE and to the teachers and students we serve.

One of Deb’s first acts as executive director was to hire retired educator, Jared Reitz, to bring the benefit of Jared’s classroom experience to OCLRE and ensure that OCLRE’s programming maintained its relevancy and usefulness to educators. Jared summarizes Deb’s contributions as follows:

"Under Deb’s direction, OCLRE has strengthened its network of teachers, legal professionals, legislators, university professors, and volunteers, all working together for the sole purpose of providing the most authentic and academically sound law and citizenship programming to Ohio educators and Ohio youth."

Current OCLRE president, Marion Smithberger, shares Deb’s long-time commitment to OCLRE, having worked with Jim Phillips and others on an embryonic program that evolved into the mock trial competition. Having observed Deb’s work as executive director, Marion commented:

"When Deb became the executive director of OCLRE she recruited me to join the OCLRE board. As president, I have worked closely with Deb in managing OCLRE through this most recent financial down turn. Deb was not afraid to make the hard decisions but she never wavered in her commitment to the kids and the program. It has been an honor to serve with her in what is arguably the best law related education program in the country."

A colleague recently observed that that practicing law is hard work. So too is running a small, nonprofit organization. Each day is a challenge to manage limited financial resources, motivate and foster teamwork by a staff that is greatly overworked and equally underpaid, deal with dissatisfied constituents, and harness and direct the energies of board members at whose pleasure you serve. If you have served on the board of a successful nonprofit organization, you likely have walked away from more than one meeting wondering how your executive director performs at such a high level under such demanding circumstances.

It takes a special individual to perform these tasks. Undoubtedly, leadership, management, and fundraising are vital skills for an executive director. Yet, the trait that is common among successful directors is a passion for the mission of the organization. Each day, Deb DeHaan brought with her a passion for law-related education, an understanding of the vision our Founding Fathers had when they formed OCLRE, and a remarkable ability to instill that passion and vision in board members, staff, and thousands of volunteers throughout Ohio. The beneficiaries of Deb’s good works are the thousands of students who have been exposed to OCLRE-sponsored activities and who have a better understanding of the law and their responsibilities as citizens.

The OCLRE board has commenced its search to find a successor to Deb to serve as our next executive director, and the board intends to find the right individual to carry our mission and message forward. However, we will be unable to replace the vision Deb DeHaan shared with those who started the organization and the enthusiasm and devotion with which she approached her work.

Godspeed Deb, and thank you for a job well done.

The board of trustees of the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education has established the Deborah DeHaan Scholarship Fund to support schools that need financial assistance to participate in OCLRE programs and activities. Questions regarding the DeHaan Scholarship Fund may be directed to Jared Reitz or Robin Hegedus at (614) 485-3510. Contributions to the Fund made in care of OCLRE at 1700 Lake Shore Drive, Columbus, Ohio 43204.

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