Past presidents know who really runs the Brooklyn Bar Association
The Brooklyn Bar Association (BBA) is a thriving local organization that boasts more than 2,000 members and provides valuable resources to those members, the local community and the legal system. It predates the days of Brooklyn as a borough, has sat on Remsen Street since 1918, and during that time it has featured some of the best and brightest legal minds as its presidents.
However, many would say the person who is most responsible for having kept the BBA running smoothly over the past 30 years and who is most responsible for its current-day success has never been president.
“He’s always been the one who has kept things running,” said past President Gregory Hesterberg of BBA Executive Director Avery Eli Okin. “He’s an absolutely gentleman; in crisis, he’s as cool as cucumber. And, you know, in this profession, crisis can come in all shapes and forms — anywhere from someone arrested to someone dying to health problems, and he was always there.”
“He was always the same, he wasn’t afraid to do anything,” said past President Joseph Farrell. “He was never a wise-guy or a big mouth. He was always in the background, but he enjoyed that. You would ask him to do one thing and he would do 10 things.”
It was Farrell who was instrumental in getting Okin into his current position, which he has held for 30 years. Farrell explained to the Brooklyn Eagle that the previous Executive Director Henry “Kell” Gross had let the position grow stale, and wanted someone more dynamic in charge when he became president. So he, and other members of the BBA, worked out a pension for Gross and he retired.
There was no clear person in line to replace Gross until Okin’s father, Julius Okin, a BBA member, suggested to Farrell that his son wanted a more active role within the organization. At this point, Okin might still have passed for a John Jay College student, where he received his undergraduate degree magna cum laude, and was only four years out of Brooklyn Law School.
“He was a brand new executive director just barely out of law school, but he picked it up right away,” Farrell recalled.
Farrell credited Okin with being instrumental in getting the BBA to join the American Bar Association and the NYC Bar Association. Farrell described the association in those days as an “old man’s club,” and also gave Okin credit for helping to increase membership by incorporating a new and diverse crowd.
Not everything went so well in those early days, though. Then-President Hesterberg, who described himself and Okin as, “two young guys dealing with a bunch of grumpy old men,” said a lack of a long-standing executive director was occasionally a problem. So he and Okin often turned to past presidents to figure things out. Today, past presidents turn to him.
“Avery is the institutional memory of the Brooklyn Bar Association,” said past President Andrew Fallek. “If he wasn’t involved, it didn’t happen. Avery’s seen it all before. He’s like Radar O’Reilly from ‘Mash.’ Avery knows what you’re going to ask before you do.”
Okin is not the BBA’s only connection to the past, however. There are still plenty of past presidents around who remember those early days, which included an office that was much different than the brightly colored one adorned with a large executive desk, tennis memorabilia, plaques and pictures of Okin with each of the past presidents who have served under him that is in place today.
“I remember like it was yesterday a young, smart and eager attorney with black hair, who started as an assistant of sorts to the association’s longtime executive director,” said past President Hon. Miriam Cyrulnik. “Avery had a child-size desk, half-hidden by rolling coat racks, and a pencil.”
Over the years, different presidents have remembered Okin for different things, which usually have very little to do with actually running the association.
“I used to have a habit of walking the Brooklyn Bridge every single day; so when I became president, I told Avery to get a pair of sneakers,” past President Steve Cohn recalled. “He asked why, I told him we were going to start having meetings on the bridge and he looked at me like I was crazy. But then we started walking. If you look in his closet today, I bet those sneakers are still there.”
“When you’re president, Avery is unwaveringly supportive of you personally and professionally,” past President Andrea Bonina explained. “The year I became president, one of my sons became seriously ill, which made my schedule very unpredictable. I just remember Avery bending over backwards to accommodate me. I remember him taking my calls on weekends, early morning, late in the evening, no matter when. His only question was, ‘How can I make this easy for you?’”
Perhaps his two most impressive and noticeable personality traits are his ability to get along with such a wide range of personalities who have held the presidential mantle over the years and his loyalty to the BBA itself.
“No matter what anyone ever says about Avery, and remember, he’s had to get along with a lot of different personality types, I doubt there is a single person who wouldn’t tell you that Avery is always trying to act in the best interests of the Brooklyn Bar Association,” Fallek said.
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