Pa. ACLU leader senses he was born for the job "I think this is part of my soul," Witold Jan Walczak, 43, said of protecting civil rights.

Posted: November 26, 2004

Witold Jan Walczak is not one of those people who awoke in mid-career wondering how he wound up in his job.

To hear Vic, as he is known, tell it, becoming an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer was almost preordained.

Walczak was born in Ystad, Sweden. His mother and grandfather survived the Treblinka concentration camp and, after the war, had been forced into exile from their native Poland by the Communist government. Walczak himself visited Poland in 1983 after martial law had been imposed to crush the Solidarity labor movement.

For the Walczaks and thousands of others, the notion that civil liberties were fragile and could be snatched away was a fact of life.

"I think this is part of my soul," he said.

Now, 13 years after joining the ACLU's Pittsburgh office, Walczak, 43, has become legal director for Pennsylvania. It is a time when the state organization is in flux and civil liberties are being tested after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Walczak came to the United States with his parents when he was 3. The family settled in Tennessee, where his father, a chemist, had found work. They moved often, following his father's career, before settling in Scotch Plains in North Jersey, where Walczak graduated from high school.

Walczak earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1983 at Colgate University in central New York, where his heritage and ability to speak Polish enabled him to work with a nearby refugee center and some of the 5,000 Polish emigres who had settled around Hamilton, N.Y.

Through his volunteer work, Walczak learned of an international friendship group and got to go to Poland for six weeks after graduation.

"What I saw was a country that was tremendously poor," Walczak said.

In Poland, he said a fresh orange he had brought with him after visiting his grandparents in Sweden was coveted as a luxury item. "Nobody could afford a car," Walczak recalled. "But if you asked them what thing they wanted most, they would answer, 'We want civil liberties.' "

Walczak got a firsthand taste of authoritarianism when he was in Gdansk and took photos as police moved in and broke up a Solidarity rally. Walczak said police accosted him and demanded his film.

Walczak also recalled the humiliation of being strip-searched by Polish customs officials before he flew home.

"I got home and I knew I wanted to do this kind of work," he said, referring to civil-rights activism.

Walczak entered Boston College's law school, where he continued working with refugees, and earned a law degree in 1986.

Searching for a place to begin practicing public-interest law, Walczak first went to Boston's Conservation Law Foundation. When his wife, Katherine, was accepted at medical school in Washington, Walczak found work in Baltimore as a prisoner-assistance lawyer for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.

Five years later, his wife's education complete, they began looking in the Northeast for a spot where both could pursue careers.

Walczak said his wife's first-choice opportunity was in Pittsburgh. He had six job offers - none involving a civil-liberties practice - and a one-year associate director's job at the ACLU in Pittsburgh.

"I took the lowest-paying offer and never looked back," Walczak said.

Today, Walczak's wife is a pediatrician, and the couple have three children: a boy, 14, and two girls, 10 and 8.

Walczak's career in Pittsburgh involved the usual mix of constitutional and civil-rights issues.

He said he is most proud of the 1993 civil-rights suit against the Pittsburgh Police Department. The suit, which challenged a decades-long failure to discipline officers accused of brutality and misconduct - one officer had 34 complaints - was joined by the Justice Department and resulted in the naming of an outside monitor.

Walczak advanced to executive director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh office and, in November 2002, legal director for Western Pennsylvania.

Earlier this year, Stefan Presser, the Philadelphia-based legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania for 20 years, left the job and was then diagnosed with brain cancer.

The departure of the hard-driving Presser, whom Walczak and other ACLU lawyers described as a "legend" in civil-rights circles, would itself have been a major turning point for the organization.

The naming of a new legal director from Pittsburgh - who intends to remain in Pittsburgh - will force a refocusing of a group long dominated by Philadelphia.

Walczak, however, is adamant that he is not about to scale back the ACLU's Philadelphia profile and has shuttled regularly between the two cities to prove it.

What Walczak does want is for ACLU lawyers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to form stronger relationships with local lawyers willing to do pro bono civil-rights work.

The ACLU in Pittsburgh has been active since the Sept. 11 attacks representing the Muslim community in Western Pennsylvania.

And Walczak said his travels in recent months through Pennsylvania's "T," the mostly rural region between the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, have convinced him that many people have suffered civil-rights violations in silence.

"There is much more that can be done in the urban areas, and we are just scratching the surface in the more rural areas of the state," Walczak said.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2658 or jslobodzian@phillynews.c,om.

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