Like others who overcome adversity, Patton Boggs partner Henry Chajet is a stronger person because of it. Stricken with polio at age four, Chajet endured multiple surgeries and continual physical therapy—efforts that have provided marginal mobility. Today he walks with a pronounced limp and, when necessary, uses a cane. “I feel lucky to have gone through the experience,” he reflects. “I struggled a lot in elementary school, [always going] in and out of surgery, making friends [with classmates] only to miss school or move. It interfered with my schooling. But it made me a stronger person.”
His struggles and experiences were the source of the fortitude and character that enabled him to become a leading lawyer and lobbyist, going on to earn a place as a senior member of an internationally respected law firm.
Chajet’s family moved from Cuba to Miami in 1953 in order to obtain better treatment for his condition. The family moved to Brooklyn only to return to Miami, where he graduated from high school. He attended college at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, on a combination scholarship/loan program.
When he arrived, he was surprised to find the National Guard on campus, a result of the 1968 civil rights riots and, later, the protests against the Vietnam War. When not studying or escaping tear gas used to disperse protestors, Chajet made pizzas at a shop called Angie’s; he felt obliged to work during his studies to begin paying his student loans. Later, while still at Case Western, he moved on to work in sales for North American Coffee, the company that developed the first home-brewing drip coffee maker—the iconic Mr. Coffee machine. “I made quite a bit of money, actually,” he laughs.
Despite this work experience and his early coursework as a physics student, by his third year, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He wasn’t inspired by his studies, so he switched his major to political science. His focus turned to law school as the next step due to the encouragement of a couple of professors—one who taught undergraduate law, and another who taught a business course that covered legal topics.
After graduation, Chajet got a job in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working days for the state tax department and taking evening classes at Duquesne Law School. “I could get my work done in half a day,” he confesses, noting that he worked on a quota basis, “and then could spend the rest of my day studying law.” Not only did Chajet graduate cum laude in 1976, but he was voted by the faculty as the class’s “outstanding graduate.”
When reminiscing about his college and law-school career at Case Western and Duquesne, Chajet does not recall any other physically challenged students, and remembers that he worked hard to veil his own immobility with his friendships, academic capability, and outside interests. “I can’t say if I impacted the perceptions of those around me,” Chajet admits, when asked how his success as a physically challenged person affected others. “But I’m thankful for the lifelong friends I made who ignored my challenges, unless I needed help. Most important, they taught me that it was okay to ask for and accept help.
That was critical for me, since I had the insecurities that flowed from being different as a child. Perhaps my friends and I provided each other mutually beneficial lessons.”
After three years as an associate at a Pittsburgh law firm, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the American Mining Congress, a mining industry trade association. Taking this position propelled him into the heart of an emerging legislative and litigation movement to improve safety standards in the workplace, an undertaking that continues today. “There was a tremendous demand in industry, from CEOs to supervisors, to understand and clarify duties and obligations,” he explains.
Much of this job involved visiting mines and industrial facilities to help them adhere to the new regulations or prepare for litigation. For someone with a mobility impediment, it was no easy task. “I have difficulty walking anywhere,” Chajet offers, “but I had to do a lot of walking on unleveled ground and climbing stairs.”
The experience pushed him into his life’s work as a crisis manager, litigator, and advocate for health and safety in the nation’s workplaces. Chajet would go on to teach Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) law as an adjunct at Johns Hopkins University for fifteen years concurrently with his law practice. “The trade association job gave me the opportunity to teach [health and safety] law to corporate leaders and facility managers,” he reflects. This experience led to his position with Patton Boggs, about which Chajet has only good things to say: “I’ve been honored to be a part of a great law firm, one that embraces diversity and finds strength in our differences.”
Since then, Chajet has appeared before Congress a number of times to promote improvements in workplace health and safety standards. On one occasion in 2001, he tackled the issue of exposure levels to harmful materials in the workplace, and how these standards are established. “One of my proudest accomplishments,” he shares, referencing his work in that area for Patton Boggs, “was to force the integration of transparency and sound science into policies that seemed to be administratively convenient and that harmed my clients.” Chajet explains that the process of determining these safety levels had been conducted behind closed doors, making the decision more likely to be motivated by politics or bias rather than science.
“The job is never done,” he asserts, “and even today we are fighting for the release of government diesel studies that federal agencies are withholding, and we’re preparing for new rulemakings that I worry will not be consistent with sound science.” Nevertheless, progress has been made: “Fatalities in the workplace have fallen significantly, legal duties are far better understood, and we are debating how to continue that success while saving lives and American jobs.”
Chajet is an incessant worker. He said he learned his work ethic from the hours he spent toiling in physical therapy, and from the efforts of his parents who struggled to become part of America’s middle class. “As a kid,” he recalls, “failure was never an acceptable option, and it continues to be unacceptable today in my professional and personal life.”
Blessed with a loving wife and three children, the oldest a daughter who recently graduated from Loyola Law School in New Orleans, Chajet looks back at his accomplishments with satisfaction.
“My wife gets all the credit,” he claims. “She’s an educator, with the patience and love that makes for wonderful kids. We like to go fishing as an entire family—what happens more often, though, is that just two of the five of us make the trip. It’s a wonderful bonding experience, and the quiet waters are exhilarating and conducive to conversation. We also love the beach, and spend as much time as possible in Florida, where my wife and I grew up.”
He also is quick to remind others though that his limited mobility is not a limitation: “One of the things people miss when they encounter a person with a physical challenge is that it has created far more strength than weakness. Anyone who has had this challenge will tell you the same thing. You are a far better person; it’s a tool you have for life. The strength you develop from those challenges is truly a far greater asset than anything you have lost.” DB
Tom Calarco is a freelance writer and historian of the Underground Railroad. He lives in Orlando, Fla.
From the July/August 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®