Special to Lawyers Journal When attorney Richard A. Johnston, a partner at Hale and Dorr, traveled with his sixth-grade daughter Sarah's school to the United Republic of Tanzania, Africa, five years ago, he didn't realize he'd soon be signing on for a much bigger commitment.
Students at Cambridge's Shady Hill School study Africa as a central subject in sixth grade, then make summer trips to help solidify the learning experience. On Johnston's trip, the group's tour included a visit to the Sakila Primary School in Arusha, the country's second-largest area, where the visitors were treated to a ceremony that included songs, dancing, poems and greetings from the headmaster. The school - like the country - is fiscally poor, but the production was impressive.
In fact, the adults in the group were so impressed they decided to do something.
"In five years, we've helped or are helping eight schools," says Johnston, president of The Friends of Tanzanian Schools, Inc., a non-profit, tax-exempt organization founded as the result of that trip. The group has raised funds to build six classrooms (including a computer room), and install electricity and phones at the Sakila Primary School. Through the organization, a United States school donated computers, allowing communication between students in that school with their counterparts in Africa.
The organization's largesse has expanded beyond the Sakila School. It has provided funds for one school to buy land and another to build a classroom, and donated a copy machine to a Jesuit School.
It also has picked up partners along the way, in addition to Shady Hill. The Cabot School in Newton donated books. The public Fenway High School donated computers. This summer, two graduate students from Stanford University and a math professor from Boston College are traveling to Tanzania to help install the computers and provide training.
"We recently agreed to build a classroom at another school, and some schools are providing money to rebuild classrooms," says Johnston. "Many of the schools were built in the 1960s and they're falling apart."
The organization also donated $1,000 to the organization Hands Across the Water to purchase a truck-sized container of books for Tanzanian schools.
Johnston is president of the organization, which has eight other Boston area directors, including two attorneys, the recently retired Catherine E.C. Henn (a founding director) and Todd Cronan of Goodwin Procter.
Cronan, who has been instrumental in fund-raising, met Johnston in Africa last spring. Cronan and his family were in the midst of a three-month sabbatical, during which he and his wife, Lisa, an architect, were teaching at the Kissongo School in Arusha. Cronan and Johnston were introduced by Rick Thomson of Thomson Safaris, whose wife, Judith Wineland, is a Friends director as well.
"Richard is an extremely outward-looking and thoughtful person," Cronan says. "You can see in the work he's done, how broad a vision of public service he has. He's a real pleasure to work with."
The dollars the group has raised, primarily through private donations, go a long way, given the currency exchange rate. But providing aid has sometimes been complicated by the realities of the region. For instance, a construction project at one school was delayed after Somali bandits armed with AK-47s stole construction supplies. Nonetheless, the organization has continued to raise funds, and has expanded its efforts to more schools.
During the summer of 2000, the organization sponsored the headmaster of the Sakila School to come to the U.S. to teach at the Shady Hill School and other local elementary and middle schools. He also toured Harvard University and attended a Red Sox game.
Last summer, when Johnston and his sons returned to Tanzania, he was greeted to a thank-you celebration at Sakila.
"We met with representatives of four to five other schools," Johnston says. "We're going to take on projects with a few of them."
Those who know Johnston know of his busy schedule of volunteer activities, to go with a full pro-bono plate. In addition to his litigation practice with Hale and Dorr, Johnston is a strong supporter of legal-services funding and is involved with a number of non-profit organizations. He has represented inmates, patients in state mental-health facilities and tenants on pro bono basis.
He's currently president of two conservation organizations on Cape Cod, the Dennis Conservation Trust (of which he's a founder) and the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts, an umbrella organization for 20 other trusts on the Cape.
"It's one of the best-recognized land trusts for support and funding of land acquisition," Johnston says with pride. "It's spearheading conservation on the Cape."
That's not all. In Charlestown, where he lives, he represented the North Area Task Force, a community organization that oversaw the Big Dig in that city. The influence of that organization helped create City Square Park on a parcel of land where the highway had been put underground. He recently retired from that board.
For many years, he represented the nonprofit Allston-Brighton Community Development Corporation, which builds low- and moderate-income housing, and formerly represented a largely immigrant neighborhood in Lowell in connection with a public construction project impacting the area. He currently represents a South Boston neighborhood in an environmental case against the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority on a pro bono basis.
He's also on the capital-campaign committee to rebuild the Younger Child Clubhouse for the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.
"It keeps life interesting," Johnston says of his varied outside interests.
There are many ways to contribute to his community in the U.S., Johnston says, but "seeing how poor Tanzania is, even in comparison with the poorest parts of the United States, adds another dimension. The fact that I've been to the country, seen the schools there, and the lack of any sort of school supplies, the dirt floors, no windows, no electricity, and practically no books, no paper, and no pens - yet instilling discipline and respect for teaching with 600 kids … I thought I'd like to give something back to a country we enjoy, that obviously needs any help anybody could give it.
"Hale and Dorr has been wonderfully supportive of all the pro-bono work I've done and all the organizations I'm involved with," he adds. "That's part of the culture of Hale and Dorr.
"When I went to law school, I wanted to improve society, and when I went to Hale and Dorr I was thrilled they believed that lawyers should do this kind of work. They not only allow but encourage myself and others to take a significant portion of our practice time and devote it to the community."
To donate or find out more about the Friends of Tanzanian Schools, Inc., write to the organization c/o Richard A. Johnston, Hale and Dorr, 60 State St., Boston, MA 02109.