Retired after 38 years in practice, attorney reflects on the good life

by Jo Mathis
Legal News

It’s a sunny afternoon in northwest Ann Arbor, and Roger Chard sits in his screened-in porch talking about the ducks he and his partner, Maurita Holland, spotted in the backyard creek that morning.
He’s also still enjoying memories of a recent expedition to Antarctica, a skiing trip to Winter Park, Colorado, and a road trip to Florida. And he looks forward to more travels this summer, when
Holland  becomes president of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor and he tags along with her to Rotary’s international convention in Lisbon.

Clearly, retirement suits Chard, who for 38 years was a lawyer in Ann Arbor before he retired from his private practice in real estate law in 2010.

“I was ready to be done, and didn’t try to stretch it beyond that period so that I could potentially get grumpy about continuing to work,” he says.

Chard has been one of Ann Arbor’s outstanding lawyers for decades, says his close friend, attorney James Cameron, who has faced Chard in the courtroom several times.

“On my first case with Roger, I made the huge mistake of thinking that Roger would be at a disadvantage because of his visual deficit,” says Cameron. “Was I ever wrong. Roger is one of the most well prepared, informed and competitive opponents I have ever faced.”

Attorney Charles Borgsdorf recalls the time he and Chard competed in a foul shooting contest. They put a portable radio behind the backboard so Chard could hear where the basket was. Chard won.

“My promising hoop career came to an ignominious end,” says Borgsdorf.

Chard co-wrote a book on landlord tenant law that Borgsdorf calls the “indispensable treatise” on the subject. Chard, however, will not write a memoir because he doesn’t think a book about an attorney who was blind all his life would be interesting.

Even if he’s overcome so much?

“I’ve always said that if I had overcome being blind, I would see,” he says.

And then he smiles.

Chard does that a lot. In fact, imperturbable is one of the adjectives Holland uses to describe him. “And he’s bright, he’s funny, he’s musical,” said Holland. “He’s just very calm and easy to be with. And he’s fun. And also serious.”

Chard, who will turn 65 in July, lives with Holland in an immaculate, clutter-free home. They live directly across the street from a bus stop, which is a bit unusual in a residential neighborhood and one of the reasons they bought the house.

“I’ve been trying to get the driver to pull into the driveway for years,” he jokes.

He and Holland have been together since 2005, acquainted for about 40 years, ever since she began to accompany him — a baritone — on the piano. They performed an impromptu concert on the ship returning from their Antarctica trip.

“Fortunately, the seas were relatively calm that night,” said Chard, who sang for 15 years with the Ann Arbor Cantata Singers.“It would have been difficult, but there are times I wish I had pushed the music part of my career more than I did. But I’ve sung a lot for someone who had a full-time day job...”

In fact, he’s sung all over Michigan, in several other states, and at the National Archives in Washington D.C. He has soloed, sung with a variety of orchestras, and other singers and performers, including the late Dave Brubeck.

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah Weber says Chard is the most exceptional person she’s ever met.“How many sighted people do you know who consistently made quiet, thoughtful and humorous courtroom arguments that annihilated opponent’s claims during the day, gave flawless classical vocal performances in the evenings or on weekends, and spent vacations skiing down the mountains in Colorado or exploring the grandeur of Antarctica?” she asks.

The Lansing native was the only child of a stay-at-home mother and the musical director at the residential Michigan School for the Blind, which Chard attended in grades K-12. He then went on to Michigan State University. He participated actively in high school and college debate, winning the Michigan State high school debate championship in 1965, many national tournaments in college, and the National College Student Speaker of the Year in 1969.

After MSU, Chard entered University of Michigan Law School, where he relied on books on tape and people reading to him and taping things for him. “It was hard work,” he says of law school, “but it was certainly doable. I was the only blind student at the law school during those three years, and they weren’t entirely sure how to deal with me.”

For his first 10 years out of law school, Chard worked for the Washtenaw County Legal Aid Society, which became Legal Services of Southeastern Michigan. He started as a staff attorney and by the time he left in 1983 for private practice, he was the executive director.

He handled things in private practice mostly the way he got through law school — using a Braille writer (which is far too noisy for courtroom use) or a slate and stylus, which is a smaller and quieter but slower device. Many blind people in recent years have grown up with audio technology.

“I use plenty of that, but I’ve always thought that Braille has its value,” he says. “Braille has a lot of advantages, in my opinion, not the least of which is that it teaches you to spell.

“I had zillions of Braille notes around my desk and in my office,” he recalls. “I had to deal with scheduling readers to come in. In the late 80’s, when I was able to use a computer, it was an astonishing difference.”

His computer has software that converts virtually everything that comes to the screen to speech, and he can adjust pitch, speed, and volume. And he can know what he’s typing when he’s typing it, while before he might forget the last thing he’d typed when he stopped for a moment to think about what to write next.

He says it’s “incredible” to  use equipment that now talks to him and echoes his key strokes.

One of the other huge helps is the optical character recognition scanner that converts print to speech. When he bought his first one in 1987, he felt like a kid on Christmas morning because for the first time, he didn’t need someone else to read a document to him.

Says Chard,“These are all things I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. I never thought I’d be able to pick up a book or piece of paper and read it by myself.”

People have a hard time picturing what it would be like to be blind, he says. In the late 70’s, he sued the Ann Arbor Vic Tanny Health Club because it wouldn’t sell a membership to his blind client.
The club insisted “common sense tells us it wouldn’t be safe.” The case ended up in the Court of Appeals after a visiting judge agreed it wouldn’t be safe.

“I said to the appellate judges that I knew it was difficult for people in Vic Tanny’s position to envision how it would be for a blind person to operate in their club.” I said, “I know it’s difficult for you, the judges, to picture how it is that I practice law. But the flip side is the same. I wouldn’t know how to go about practicing law very well if I suddenly could see. I know how I do things and you know how you do things.’”

The Court of Appeals decided with Chard.

“People just make so many assumptions about what you must not be able to do simply because you can’t see,” he says. “It’s not as if I pretend that not seeing is of no consequence... But for everybody, getting through life is a series of perpetual work-arounds, trying to deal with whatever it is you have to deal with.”

He likes to travel, and has been doing a lot of it since retiring. This year, he enjoyed the skiing trip in Winter Park,  where he skis through the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD)  with a guide skiing behind him, calling turn commands.When there are few people on the slopes, he strikes out on his own.

Chard, winner of the NSCD’s 2004 Athlete of the Year Award, skis the “black” slopes, among the most difficult. “It is quite thrilling because it’s the kind of freedom and speed that I never really expected to experience,” he says.

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