Friday Feature: Attorney remains 'focused' on his career opportunities

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Sometimes, having perfect eyesight does not guarantee that a person will be clearly able to find their right path in life, leading to missed opportunities. And sometimes, a loss of vision opens doors that were not visible before.

Mike R. Stanley is someone who can relate to that.

An average student who was more interested in play than school, Stanley was perfectly comfortable working at a factory. But he began losing his sight when he was 20. And he was okay with that, too.

But his disability opened doors he never saw in his youth. And now Stanley, 53, of Fenton, has not only graduated from college and law school, but he’s passed the Michigan Bar examination, is volunteering at the Genesee County Circuit Court, and taking graduate courses at college before planning his next move.

Talk about having foresight into one’s future.

Stanley does not look at his disability as being a blessing in disguise. But his outlook in the face of what many others would have considered a death sentence at such an early age is nothing short of amazing, and inspirational.

“My loss of sight presented me with an opportunity I would not have had before,” he said. “Life’s hard for everybody. But my disability has focused me.”

Stanley was born on an Air Force base in Georgia, but his family hailed from Virginia and Tennessee and was comprised of coal workers and farmers. Some worked in conservation camps for the Tennessee Valley Authority, former military men who were now tearing up railroad tracks or planting trees. But one relative joined a carnival, and on a trip to Flint he heard of the good money being offered at the automotive plants. Eventually, the majority of the family came north. Stanley was 5 years old when his parents came to the Flint area.

The family settled in Fenton while Stanley’s father, Ray, worked at a General Motors plant, took courses to finish high school and became a foreman at the plant. Stanley’s mother, Sue, stayed home to raise Mike and his sister, Brenda.

Stanley enjoyed a typical childhood, playing near all the lakes and rivers in Fenton and participating in sports while attending Fenton elementary and high schools.

“I was an average student, nothing special,” he said. “I just wanted to get school done so I could go outside.”

While attending Fenton High School, Stanley met a few boys who lived in a nearby orphanage and the group began boxing at the boys’ home. Stanley and few others entered the Golden Gloves competition “on a dare.” It was not a successful event for them.

“We all got beat up and came home,” Stanley said.

But he met several good kids there, and said he values those acquaintances even now. After graduating from high school in 1971, Stanley continued to play sports — he was a pretty good catcher in baseball — and worked at the YMCA and a clothing store. But a short time later, he got a job at an auto plant and met Debra, his future wife. They were married in 1973, and have a daughter, Katie, 22, who is attending the University of Michigan-Flint.

Stanley was taking apprenticeship classes at a local community college to become an electrician, hoping it would lead to a better job while at the plant. But he also helped his sister-in-law take care of her horse, which was boarded at the home of a doctor, who also had homing pigeons. It was then that he began having troubles with his eyesight.

“I kept noticing bends in things, just like they were snapped in half,” he said.

Telephone wires would not appear straight to him, but rather like zigzagged paperclips. He had blind spots and central vision loss. Big patches of the object he was looking at were gone. He could not make out details in anything.

His vision problems persisted, and led to him being injured at work a few times. After consulting with doctors in Ann Arbor and the University of Purdue, doctors diagnosed him with post-ocular histoplasmosis, a virus he caught from the pigeons.

A progression of laser surgeries and medications followed, and finally Stanley was forced to quit the factory job. Stanley and his wife worked at, and eventually bought, his mother-in-law’s piano store, and Stanley also became manager, then the owner, of a clothing store. They sold both businesses in the early 1990s, and Stanley became a car salesman at a local dealership.

“My eyes were pretty settled then, and I was able to drive on and off, but I was pushing it,” he said. “There were times I shouldn’t be driving, and I knew it.”

His eyesight worsened and he went back to Ann Arbor after a few parking-lot scrapes at the dealership, and after he was unable to pass a driver’s examination and slipped on a puddle in the garage he never saw, Stanley quit selling cars.

They sold their Fenton house and moved into an apartment in Farmington Hills. Stanley said his vision had regressed to the point of leaving him legally blind, and the thought of explaining his plight to friends — selling their businesses, losing his job — made moving their only option.

“We just started a whole new lifestyle,” he said. “There were a lot of adjustments we had to make.”

While there, Stanley took up jogging on a nearby track, and met up with a group of ladies who were training for the Detroit Marathon. A few of them were attending Oakland Community College, and suggested he should go to college. By then, Stanley was in his mid-40s.

“In school before, I wasn’t that bright,” he said. “I was not one of those kids who won the science fair.”

But it got Stanley thinking about being a teacher. So he called the college and began receiving services from the Michigan Commission for the Blind, and tools to help, such as a screen that enlarges print so he could read using a magnifying glass. He also had to attend programs to prove he could get along by himself, and he learned how to use the public transportation system to get where he needed to be.

Stanley took classes at Oakland Community College, hoping to get a teacher’s certificate or become a social worker. He studied for hours, but got A’s in his subjects, and received his associate’s degree

in 2001. The family then moved back to Fenton, and Stanley began taking classes at the University of Michigan-Flint for his undergraduate degree.

He was receiving disability checks, and his wife was giving piano lessons, so Stanley again relied on public transportation to get back and forth to college. But he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, and then obtained a master’s degree in history and philosophy, in 2004, getting high grades each step of the way.

“You start looking at things in a broader picture,” he said.

While writing his thesis, one professor suggested he might want to go to law school. By now, Stanley felt empowered, and applied to Cooley Law School in Lansing.

“I started thinking I could probably do this,” he said. “I thought I’d be a good attorney because I was older, compassionate about people, and thought there would be someplace for me to fit in.”

With student loans, help from the Michigan Commission for the Blind and a scholarship from Cooley, he began law school.

“The first term was really hard for me,” he said.

Stanley hired a reader because of the volume required for classes was difficult the slow way he was forced to read. He developed systems to memorize things and used his magnifying glass to read and copy homework, “and then I started getting A’s in everything,” he said.

He graduated cum laude from Cooley in January 2010, and passed the Michigan Bar a month later.

“I used two huge computer screens to study for the bar, 10 hours a day for almost two months, but I really felt prepared,’ he said.

This past May, Stanley was sworn in to the bar. Using a contact, he managed to get involved in the Genesee County Circuit Court as a volunteer to learn the ins and outs of court, where offices are located and how to find what he needed.

“To make a good living, you’ve got to be in court. And I’m learning how district court works, where the clerk’s office is, how to read the court dockets, about arraignments, how referees work, and all sorts of things,” he said.

In the summer, Stanley applied his knowledge by doing wills, trusts and other things for senior citizens during an internship in Auburn Hills.

“But I’ve learned so much here, I’ve gotten to know other attorneys, and I hope to sit in on some court cases,” he said. Stanley plans to volunteer his services to the circuit court and move on to other areas, hoping it all leads to a real job.

“I’m right where I want to be. Whether I get offered a job, or open my own practice, I’m going to make sure I’m prepared for it,” he said. His education is also continuing as he takes classes in public administration, specializing in budgets and grants. “I’m still trying to learn,” he said.

For a man who has lost so much, Stanley said he has an overwhelming need to give back. “That’s where I’ll fit the best,” he said. “I have a lot of life experience I can bring that I think compensates for my physical problems,” he said. “I was a very good law student, so I think I’ll be a good lawyer.”

Stanley said these new opportunities could not have been seen when he was in his 20s.

“Back then, all this was just not going to happen,” he said. “But I’m a different person than I was then, and I’m fortunate in a lot of ways.”

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