Times Leader Cover Story to the Sunday Business Section, September 17, 2000

"Giving Something Back"

KINGSTON TWP. - Before the clients arrive, Bernard Walter, the 53-year-old lawyer from California, parks his snow-white Lexus on a side street, enters the side door of a Shavertown church overlooking a lush green slope covered in tombstones and sits in a metal folding chair behind a wooden table in a room with padded walls.

Some Friday nights attendance is spotty.

Other nights, it's downright overwhelming.

Still, there are times when a dozen people come to the Roman Catholic church for answers, both heavenly and not so.

And, Walter tries fishing for answers to the needs presented.

"Law is an expensive and often slow, frustrating approach to solving problems," says Walter, wearing his favorite tie, a dark suit and a crisp white dress shirt. "There's a beginning, and there's an end. And there are steps in between. Practicing law is about the search for justice."

It is here at the Free Back Mountain Medical and Legal Clinic that a team of doctors and lawyers meets in the basement of St. Therese's Church to offer services to the needy.

These people, rich and poor, come hoping for speedy solutions to legal and non-emergency medical problems.

Dozens of residents and business owners have come to the weekly clinic since it opened in 1995. Dr. Fred Bloom and church officials started the medical clinic as a community outreach, and the legal portion was added in 1996.

Walter and three local lawyers rotate Friday nights working at the law clinic.

"There are medical clinics around the area," says Erik Dingle, one of the volunteer lawyers. "There are no free legal clinics from what I know. It has turned into a service. It's nice that the legal clinic can give something back. It's a wonderful experience."

Creating the law clinic is just one example of how Walter - a quiet, thoughtful man - is giving back to the region.

Asked about starting the clinic, Walter says: "You don't have to call an expensive downtown law office. Make an appointment. Dread what the fees are going to be. Sit in a waiting room. Pay for parking. And deal with that estrangement."

Giving and getting

Even though Walter and his wife, Roberta, fit the slim percentage of people who are statistically considered to be well-to-do, they aren't spending their time hiding behind that image.

However, they hold an air of privacy and intrigue. And they are quick to say they aren't attention-seekers.

"I left family and home, office, clients, schools, theater, clubs, yachting, opera - a lot of things that are very dear to me because I love my wife. And Roberta is a fabulous person," Walter says. Living here is " a challenge and I have found wonderful people here.

"It was just a choice about making my life as beautiful as possible," he says. His voice is a blend of melodic, Zen-filled undertones. He speaks in metaphors and other artful language.

During a normal week, Walter jets off to other offices in other cities. Sometimes he stays here. His current roster of clients includes dot-coms in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and Japanese trading companies in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.

The trips remind Walter of his other friends and adventures - those left behind on the West Coast and beyond.

The life left behind helped create his beliefs about ethics and how law should be practiced.

Walter finished law school by 1978 and was hired by the San Francisco District Attorney's office. There he had an eight-year tenure, prosecuting notorious porno kings and pimps.

One of his cases involved the Mitchell brothers, whose porn empire was depicted in Showtime's "Rated X," starring Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

It was in California where he met his wife in 1989.

Roberta Walter is a Wyoming Valley native who returned here from the West Coast for medical care.

She has years of experience in the local business community. She is the owner of Dallas Design, which buys, fixes up and sells local properties.

Decades ago, she and then-husband Robert Costello, owned Mr. B's, a chain of local clothing stores.

But Walter, who has a Shavertown office and others in Las Vegas and San Francisco, is a relative newcomer to the ways and traditions of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The couple moved to Dallas in 1994.

Nevertheless, the Walters have been quietly attempting through volunteering, charity and businesses ventures to be cheerleaders for a region often looked down upon as being light years behind the rest of the world.

Not buying negative stereotype

Even though the Walters have faith that the area will improve, people who know them have faith that the Walters will make a difference in the region.

"I think he's indicative of a lot of the volunteers and professional people we have in the area," says Vince Matteo, senior vice president of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry.

Matteo, Walter and several business leaders are working on the chamber's annual business ethics seminar. The program titled "E-thics in the New Economy" will feature a representative from McDonald's Corp. and focus on how job training can successfully cross generations. It is scheduled for Tuesday.

"He has an engaging way about him," Matteo says. "He just seems like a nice guy."

But Walter and his wife have a real problem: They dislike the negative rap the region has garnered and how some people have given up on making life here better.

What really gets them going is the Forbes magazine May publication, which ranked the region 196th of 200 regional economies. Roberta Walter calls the Forbes report "baloney."

Especially when the Wyoming Valley is full of life: There's a Barnes & Noble now. And the First Union Arena. And a T.J. Maxx. Olive Garden's coming. You can dine on sushi in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

What could be wrong with living here? the Walters have wondered.

After all, the couple - who could live anywhere in the world - have chosen to stay and give up on California dreaming.

"They meet you, they see what kind of car you drive. I've got this deal. They were all over you," says Roberta Walter on a dreary morning in June.

That's how she describes the shallowness of some Californians as she sits in an office she and Walter share on North Memorial Highway in Shavertown.

The Walters are dressed for a day of business in the Valley. Mister: Versace tie and shirt, black ostrich shoes, a gray Valentino suit. Misses: a metallic silver jack, flowered sheer scarf, honey blonde hair perfectly set.

"It fits right into the Valley, right as it does into Beverly Hills," Walter says. "Everyone in the morning makes a choice about what he or she is going to wear."

Walter planned to spend his afternoon at the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre while his wife tended to Dallas Design.

"What goes on in this Valley is a hidden secret," says Roberta Walter, holding a silver coffee mug. "I like how subtle it is here. I think it's just getting better. This area has everything to me."

An hour later, sitting in the wine cellar of his house in Dallas, Walter quotes businessman Malcolm Forbes: People tend to undervalue what they don't want and value what they want.

Walter says: "Translated into action means the best place to start is where we are with what we've got."

And for a man whose story crisscrosses the country and circles the world, it quickly becomes a perfect stopping point.

Marques G. Harper, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 831-7324.

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