Well Deserved

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

On the evening of Thursday, Oct. 21 in Birmingham, Mike Lavoie expects to feel a bit uneasy.

That night, in what undoubtedly will be a packed reception hall at The Townsend Hotel, Lavoie will step squarely into the spotlight, a place he prefers not to be.

But be there he will, as this year's recipient of the Leon Hubbard Community Service Award, an honor presented annually by the Oakland County Bar Association to recognize an individual who has a "record of community service, has promoted cultural diversity, advanced social equality, and worked to enhance the quality of life for all people."

Mike Lavoie, in a nutshell, according to U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson.

"He has a lifetime of community service experience," Judge Lawson wrote in nominating Lavoie for the coveted award. "He has founded and promoted organizations whose missions are to promote diversity and economic advancement and opportunities throughout Pontiac and the world. He is a mentor, a counselor, and a genuinely caring person. His life's mission is to see that others thrive. And he has remained true to the fight."

An attorney with Butzel Long, Lavoie will join a list of Hubbard Award recipients that is long and distinguished. Former award winners include U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, Oakland Circuit Court Judge Leo Bowman, retired Circuit Court Judge Fred Mester, and former General Motors attorney E. Christopher Johnson Jr.

The honor was established by the OCBA in 1994 as a posthumous tribute to Leon Hubbard, a prominent attorney and civic leader in Pontiac who was revered as a pioneer for "human rights and dignity." A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Hubbard was the founding father of the Pontiac Area Urban League, and was known as a "champion for the underdog and the underprivileged."

For Lavoie, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame who earned his law degree from the University of Detroit in 1980, the award is just the latest in a series of honors he has received on the state and county bar levels. In 2007, he was presented with the Frances R. Avadenka Memorial Award from the OCBA, while a year later he received the Michigan State Bar Champion of Justice Award. He said he is "humbled" by the latest recognition that has come his way.

"I deeply appreciate the award and its recognition of the great forces of diversity and community service," Lavoie said this week. "Those are forces that unite us and allow us to thrive together. The best part of any great honor like this is that it can serve to inspire us to do more to advance those worthy causes."

Lavoie, who has a twin brother, grew up in Pontiac, one of six children. His late father was a veteran of World War II and served as a supervisor at GM before retiring. His mother was a member of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II despite suffering from a spinal cancer that eventually would render her a paraplegic before her death in 1987.

Upon his college graduation, Lavoie joined the Peace Corps, spending two years in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa that is heavily dependent on agricultural production to fuel its economy. Lavoie, with only two weeks of technical training, was charged with directing a well-digging effort in several remote villages where water was as scarce as hope for a better life among villagers. His experience there is anything but a "distant memory to him," according to Judge Lawson, whose nomination letter was seconded by Joe Papelian, a past president of the Oakland County Bar Foundation and a longtime friend and admirer of Lavoie.

"Many of the folks from Burkina Faso remain his friends today," Judge Lawson said in his nomination letter. "He has made contact with the village of Namtenga, and through a partnership with Cranbrook Kingswood Schools, looms for making blankets and rugs were provided to Mike's adopted village in the spring of 2007. Under his leadership, a playground for the children of Namtenga was also provided that spring. Mike led a group from Cranbrook to meet with the people of Namtenga as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso."

But it is his work on the local level that resonates in the hard-hit city of Pontiac. There, he relishes his role as a mentor through the Pontiac Alumni Foundation. His mentoring efforts began five years ago at the middle school level when "he met weekly with 26 at-risk students, none of whom were expected to reach high school," Judge Lawson indicated.

"He led the students in African studies, museum trips, and got them involved in community service," Judge Lawson related. "They have come to be known as the Gettysburg Group. Some of those kids have graduated from high school just this year, and Mike is still working with them to advance their college plans."

It is work that is heavy on the "ups and downs," Lavoie acknowledged, but the sometimes "uneven progress" only seems to fuel his passion for mentoring even further.

"My greatest reward will be when the mentee becomes the mentor," Lavoie said. "That is when we can really call the program a success."

Published: Thu, Sep 23, 2010