As one of eight children raised on a farm in Stoney Point, Ontario, Joe Comartin '71 would spend hours each day camped out in an apple tree, absorbed in a good book.
Comartin, who has served as Member of Parliament for Windsor-Tecumseh since 2000, is still a voracious reader, although his current three-hour-a-day habit consists more of newspapers and legislative briefs than tales of boyhood adventure.
Comartin is famous among his fellow parliamentarians for his bookish smarts. In 2007, 2009 and 2011, his colleagues voted him "Most Knowledgeable MP" as part of a survey sponsored by Maclean's. But this member of Windsor Law's very first graduating class is quick to credit his abilities to a different kind of intelligence — knowing how to surround himself with smart people.
This was a lesson Comartin learned back in law school. One of his professors, Margaret Hughes, held master's degrees in both Social Work and Law and brought a unique perspective to the teaching of family law.
"She really wanted us to be aware of the emotional trauma that our clients would be going through during marriage breakdowns, custody battles or fights with children's services agencies," says Comartin. That stress is not only felt by the client, Hughes explained, but absorbed by the attorney, too.
After Comartin passed the bar and began practising family law in Windsor, he called Hughes and asked for advice on how to deal with such intense emotional strain, both professionally and personally. Hughes supplied an exhaustive list of social services agencies and individual professionals working in Windsor.
"It taught me the need for that kind of network," says Comartin, who learned to lean heavily on the expertise of others. "You simply can't be talented enough or knowledgeable enough to cover all these areas without relying on other people. That's something I carried with me when I became a Member of Parliament."
Perhaps inspired by the example of professors and lawyers like Margaret Hughes, the University of Windsor introduced a new dual-degree program in Fall 2010, a joint M.S.W./LL.B. The law school partnered with the School of Social Work to train a new generation of professional advocates for the poor and marginalized.
Even though Comartin worked for decades in both family law and personal injury law, he was always active in community service and local politics. Even back in his Windsor Law days, the former Deputy Environment Critic was sounding the call for action against industrial polluters. Comartin helped launch the first Windsor chapters of the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Pollution Probe.
Comartin always felt at home at Windsor Law, particularly because of the access to justice theme.
"It's about educating law students to not just use their degree for financial gain or personal gain, but to see the broader role that lawyers play in our society," he says.
In fact, it was the access to justice theme that motivated Comartin to teach several family law courses at Windsor and to attend three or four seminars at the law school every year. If Windsor Law graduates are supposed to use their skills and talents to help society, Comartin explains, "that certainly includes your alma mater."
Learn more about MP Joe Comartin, House Leader of the Official Opposition, at his official website http://www.joecomartin.ca.