In this post, I introduce you to Steve Chappelear, senior litigator at Frost Brown Todd Attorneys, LLC, Board of Directors member of the Ohio State University Alumni Association and former president of the Ohio State Bar Association and Columbus Bar Association.
I met Steve in 2010 when I attended a board meeting for the OSU Social and Behavioral Sciences Alumni Society. While I didn’t end up serving on the board with Steve, we stayed in touch. When I launched Small Town Leadership, Steve told me that it reminded him of his time growing up in a small town. From there, it was time to queue up the interview!
Where did you grow up? Mt. Air, Ohio. It is a very small community of about 200 people in Central Ohio. For those familiar with Central Ohio, it is on Olentangy River Road, between Worthington Hills and the Delaware County line. There are no traffic lights, no churches or schools. Kids from Mt. Air are bussed to surrounding school districts. While Steve was growing up in the 1960s, the only business was the Mt. Air swimming pool, which was the center of the activity every summer. Mt. Air still looks the same, although the pool was torn down and replaced with condos.
What has been your geographic journey from the time you left your small town? Steve has remained in central Ohio. He has spent his adulthood in Jersey, a hamlet of about 200 people 18 miles outside of Columbus, Ohio. Similar to Mt. Air, Jersey does not have a traffic light or any businesses. This allowed Steve to raise his children similar to his upbringing. Living in Jersey provides a blend of small town community with big city opportunities.
The fine-dining establishment The Refectory was once home to Bethel Methodist Church, Steve’s family church. He said it is strange to see a bar instead of a choir loft and a wine cellar where he once attended Sunday School.
What is your professional journey? Steve went to Ohio State and majored in psychology and English, and then continued at OSU for law school. After law school, he entered the private practice of law, and has been doing this work for 40 years. You can read about his outstanding legal accomplishments here. The story I want to share is how Steve came to the law. His first career goal as a child was to be a professional athlete. Once he realized that wasn’t likely, he discovered his love of writing through his English major. Steve was a tough judge of himself and when his only basis of comparison of success as a writer was Hemingway or JD Salinger, he thought he might go hungry as a writer. He then moved onto the idea of becoming a psychologist. Once again, he talked himself out of this profession.
When he examined what was most important to him when selecting a career, he wanted flexibility in order to be involved in his kids’ activities. His parents weren’t able to be fully active when he was in sports and extracurricular activities and he wanted this to be a focal point of his life. Without any further research or even talking to a lawyer, he decided going into law as a solo practitioner would allow him this flexibility. (Note that this led to many chuckles during our discussion because the concept of a “billable hour”, wasn’t something he was thinking about at the time).
Steve accomplished this despite a belief he had that it would be impossible to be a lawyer. He thought that you had to be born with a silver spoon to be a professional, and that wasn’t him. There weren’t any lawyers or judges in Mt. Air and Steve didn’t know any from his other experiences in life.
Steve married Sharon, his wife of 43 years, the day after he graduated from Ohio State.
How has your small town upbringing allowed you to be successful in your professional life? Steve says there are three things he learned growing up in a small town that have made him successful.
- Pursuing excellence – Steve was always playing pick-up and backyard sports. Many times, that meant playing with kids of all ages, which meant he had to keep up with older kids who were bigger, faster and stronger than him. This formed his beliefs about work ethic and performing his best. This has translated into desiring to be the best lawyer he can possibly be, and having a work ethic that allows him to get the best possible results.
- Helping people – When he initially went into the law, Steve had a romanticized notion of what helping people meant. His main example was Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He felt ashamed when he took his law school internship at a business law firm because he thought he was selling out to “the man”. When he showed up to work at the firm, he realized that people run businesses, therefore he was helping people every day.
- Making the community better – Steve thinks it’s important to help one person at a time, but coming together collectively can provide much more benefit. He saw this happen through his father’s work with veteran’s organizations and the Elks club. This has led Steve to be extremely committed to his community as evidenced by his years-long service to the Ohio State Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and The Ohio State University.
When did you have your first “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” moment? In eighth grade, Steve’s family fell on hard times and had to move from their home in Mt. Air into a split home with his grandparents on the Hilltop (an urban neighborhood in Columbus). His biggest “ah ha” was when he was in English class on his first day of school and the teacher asked the students to raise their hand if they had read the book he named. It started off basic with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The further down the list of books, the fewer hands were raised. Soon, Steve was the only one raising his hand. He said on the Hilltop life was hard for everybody and there was no sense of closeness or community. He didn’t realize how good he had it until he didn’t have it.
We met up for lunch at The Elevator to have the interview. Steve remembers The Elevator as The Clock, an establishment he would visit on his night-shift on the paper route in college. He would deliver the news to the gentlemen gathered for billiards and cigars. He said he always walked away with good tip money.
What experience is the most memorable from your time in a small town? Playing with his friends. They all get together once a year in Mt. Air for a reunion. The friendships, going back nearly 60 years, are what matter.
What is the most important lesson you took with you from your small town upbringing? Care about and take care of others. Steve says is it amazing what can happen when kind, caring and compassionate people come together. He sees this coming to life in his small town, mainly through tragedy. When he was young, a boy ran out into the road to chase a ball and was killed. His mom and many others took food to the family and consoled them. From something bad, the community pulled together to make something good.
How have you brought the small town spirit with you in life? Steve lives this every day. It is evident from his Twitter handle – Mtairboy, to his outstanding contributions in the broader communities that have been part of his professional life.
Steve says “I am no better, and no worse, than anybody else. I look out for my neighbor. I care about others.”
What advice would you give kids who are growing up in your hometown today? This is best spoken directly through Steve’s own words. “You can be whatever you want. For a long time, I thought I was just a little kid in a little community that wasn’t even big enough to be a village, that was next to another little village (Worthington), that was next to another little city that wasn’t the biggest city in the state (Columbus), and that my destiny was to just be average, if I was lucky. It took a while for me to figure out that I had potential to be better than that, and to have the confidence to stick my neck out and try.”
And tried – and succeed – he has. From being the first in his family to graduate from college, to receiving more honors from the American Bar Association that I can list here to serving his alma mater at the highest level – Steve has made his small town proud. Ultimately, that is his goal in life – to make people in Mt. Air, Ohio, proud. Steve, I think you’ve done just that!