I’ve really struggled since learning of his death just how to describe Paul Tobias’ impact on my life, as the individual who has probably had the single greatest impact on it, perhaps even more so than my parents. The twenty-two years I spent with NELA and Workplace Fairness, two organizations he founded and remained involved with for many years, have shaped me in immeasurable ways as an employment lawyer, advocate for employees, and human being. Here are just a few:
1) It is perfectly fine to charge ahead without figuring out all the details: so many times Paul had just a kernel of an idea, but look what that led to: NELA and Workplace Fairness….both thriving today and leading to millions of workers being helped in small and large ways.
2) If you don’t have all the details figured out, surround yourself with good people who will figure them out for you. Between Phyllis Tobias, Patty Losacker, and Teri Chaw, look what Paul was able to accomplish in his lifetime! How many things started on the side of his desk and found their way to reality?
3) Always be kind and assume best intentions. I saw Paul roll his eyes a few times, and he definitely had opinions about people on the other side. But rarely did his beaming smile leave his face, and almost never did he dwell for long in a negative place. There was just too much work to do.
4) I will never again experience anything at 8:30 AM on the Thursday morning in June which gave me the feeling of the “Roll Call of the States.” We were Paul’s army out there, inextricably bound together by geography and our passion for employee rights, even when he inevitably lost his place and left out a state or two. And while I’m not a runner, I knew every year that we could count on tales from Tobias 5K runs that involved defying city permit requirements, planning routes that somehow never ended up 5 kilometers long, and all the people who came in to the Convention continental breakfast sweaty but laughing hysterically about getting lost or losing out to the people who took the competition seriously. Even those who won might not have their name announced on the podium, but that was part of the charm, right?
5) He believed in us, in all of us. He used to tell me that I “knew more than any employment lawyer in America.” It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. But he understood and honored my work in compiling and analyzing what was happening in the workplace in all fifty states. Even if he didn’t really understand the Internet and had Patty print out all his emails, he knew that we were helping workers learn about and understand their rights. That faith in me, and in what Workplace Fairness did, kept me going more days than I can count.
I will always treasure my last time with him, traveling to Cincinnati in 2017 before he and Phyllis moved to Idaho. Even if some of our conversation had to be repeated several times, he still remembered the essential parts, that I was a long-time member of the “Just Cause Conspiracy.” And will also remember celebrating every fifth birthday, especially the one in 2000 when he was so excited about turning 70, since it meant he would be in a new Masters Tennis age group, and be the youngest.
There will never be another one like him, and I couldn’t have been more blessed than to have been part of his world. For the rest of my life, I will remain dedicated, as I have since I met him in 1997 or 98, to honor what was most important to him: helping employees understand, enforce and expand their rights in the workplace.