ALS: Three letters alter world of longtime area attorney


Photo by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As the oldest of seven children, Joe McGlynn grew accustomed to a leadership role at an early age and subsequently over a distinguished 55-year legal career that has been accented by his “strong commitment to the community,” where he has dedicated his “time and talents” to a number of worthwhile boards and organizations.

But in the fall of 2013, McGlynn unexpectedly became subservient to the prospect of a life with ALS, short for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the dreaded “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” that claimed the legendary Yankee slugger in 1941. An ALS diagnosis carries with it a three-part message that McGlynn found especially difficult to bear.

“First, they tell you that it is a degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord,” said McGlynn, a partner with the Bloomfield Hills firm of Strobl & Sharp. “Second, that it is progressive. And third, that there is no cure. It’s difficult to wrap your arms around all that at once.”

ALS, he explained, generally manifests itself in increased muscle weakness, especially involving the arms and legs, slurred speech, and difficulty in swallowing and breathing. Medical experts stress that is a “variable disease” and that “no two people will have the same journey or experiences.”

For McGlynn, the 20-month “journey” with ALS has been marked by diminished use of his hands and compromised upper body strength, in addition to severe fatigue and breathing difficulties.

“It is becoming increasingly more difficult each day,” McGlynn said from his home in Bloomfield Hills. “There is no way to sugar coat it. Fortunately, I am strengthened by the love of my wife and family, and a wonderful group of friends and colleagues.”

Count Elizabeth Pezzetti, chief judge of the Oakland County Probate Court, among a long list of admirers and supporters. A former neighbor of the McGlynn family, Judge Pezzetti came to know McGlynn as a “great family man and a productive member” of the community and church.

“It was when I took the bench that I realized what an extraordinary lawyer he is,” said Pezzetti, a former partner with Dickinson Wright. “He is always courteous, always prepared, and gets to the heart of the issues before the court while advocating vigorously for his clients. It is abundantly clear that he loves the practice of law that he is now winding up after over four decades. He is facing that task and the challenges of his illness with grace, courage, and determination.”

McGlynn grew up in the Palmer Park area of Detroit, attending St. Benedict in Highland Park and then Detroit Catholic Central High School. He then studied accounting at the University of Detroit before joining his father’s real estate business. As his desire for a career in accounting waned, McGlynn was encouraged by attorney Milton Zussman to consider the law instead.

The advice paid off as McGlynn recorded a near-perfect score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), paving the way for early admission to the U of D School of Law.

“There were just 24 students in my law school class and I worked for Milton Zussman throughout law school,” McGlynn said of his legal mentor. “I graduated in June 1960, passed the bar that year, and opened a law practice in the back of my dad’s real estate office. It was a pretty remarkable way to launch a legal career.”

After a short stint in the Army at Fort Knox (Ky.), McGlynn resumed his law practice in late 1961 and was married in June 1962 to his now wife of 52 years, Kay, a graduate of Mercy College in Nursing in Detroit.  The couple has four children – Julie, Tim, Kathleen and Kevin – and five grandchildren, one of whom used her writing talents to touch her grandfather’s heart over the holiday season.

His granddaughter, Annie Cress, a seventh-grader at Lakelands Park Middle School in Maryland, has enjoyed a special bond with her grandfather since she was a toddler. Their close ties have become even stronger during his battle with ALS, according to McGlynn.

“In school, she was assigned a paper to write about someone who had inspired her and I was deeply touched when she chose to write about me,” McGlynn said of his 12-year-old granddaughter.

The essay, aptly titled “My Grand-Father,” offered Annie the opportunity to reminisce about special times with the man she affectionately calls “Jojo.”

“He taught me how to be me and how important being yourself is,” Annie wrote in her essay. “The thing that hit me right in the gut is when I found out that Jojo had been diagnosed with ALS. Once you’re diagnosed with ALS, the life expectancy is three to five years. This only made me stronger. Things started to change, but my mom always would say to me, ‘Enjoy every day with him while he still feels well.’

“The fact that I know that Jojo isn’t in the best living condition, only makes everything he says ten times more inspiring,” she added. “No matter what happens, I know that Jojo will always be at my side whether he’s on land, or not.”

Understandably, such thoughts brought “tears to my eyes when she read it to me over Christmas,” McGlynn said. “I was so proud of her for putting her heart and soul into the essay.”

It’s a life lesson she may have learned from her grandfather, who now is closing the books on a legal career that has spanned five decades and has focused on probate and estate planning, trusts, real estate, and related areas.

“I have loved the practice of law and have been blessed by the many people I have worked with and represented over the years,” McGlynn said, noting that a number of his clients have been with him for several generations. “I have been particularly fortunate to have worked with Strobl & Sharp over the last six years. They brought me in as a partner, and they have been incredibly supportive and helpful during my illness.”

Now, in the midst of his daily struggles with ALS, McGlynn is grateful for “all of the little things in life” that often are taken for granted.

“Just getting dressed, buttoning my shirt, putting on my shoes – nothing is simple any more,” McGlynn said. “It is so time consuming, so difficult, and so frustrating not to be able to do the routine matters of everyday life. That is why I’m thankful that I can still walk, still read, still talk, and still drive. I feel that my mind is still sharp and that there are many good days still ahead. I’ve always believed in the power of a positive outlook and that has become especially important now in light of my condition.”