Neal W. Dickert is a familiar face at many area nonprofit organizations working with at-risk youth
The Augusta attorney’s passion for helping troubled teenagers was forged during the nine years he spent as an Augusta Judicial District Superior Court judge, where all too often he had to mete out punishments to young people who went astray.
“Many of the tragedies I encountered were teenagers who had ventured in the wrong direction,” he said. “There was a pattern that you would find: They had dropped out of school. Most of them did not have parents, or a parent, who cared about them. The phrase I use is that they were ‘raised by the streets.’ “
So after stepping down from the bench in 2008, the Hull Barrett attorney plunged headlong into youth intervention organizations such as as Child Enrichment, Hope for Augusta, Tuttle-Newton and Communities in Schools. In 2013, Dickert was instrumental in organizing the Augusta Bar Association Foundation, which in just three years has granted nearly $70,000 to metro area nonprofits.
These deeds and others over his 42-year-career will earn Dickert the Lifetime Achievement Award at the State Bar of Georgia’s annual Justice Robert Benham Awards for Community Service in Atlanta on Feb. 28.
The award, co-sponored by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, will be presented in Atlanta for the “significant contributions” Dickert has made beyond his “official or legal work,” the state bar said. Attorney C. Thompson Harley is the only other Augustan to receive the award.
“I don’t think any of us expect or particularly even aspire for this kind of recognition,” Dickert said. “I think what you try to do is to do your job the best you can and respond to the needs of the community as called upon.”
The Newberry, S.C., native decided to go into law while attending the American Legion’s Palmetto Boys State leadership retreat in high school. While attending Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., he met his future wife, Floride, an Augusta co-ed attending nearby Converse College.
They married while he was in law school at the University of South Carolina, where his studies were interrupted by a year in Vietnam.
“She was my rock and my backbone during that time,” Dickert recalled of his tour with the Army Medical Service Corps. “You wouldn’t wish that experience on anybody, but being out of school gave me a real purpose when I got back.”
After graduating in 1974, the young couple moved to Augusta where Dickert found a position at the Hull firm under the tutelage of attorneys such as Pat Rice and former partner David Zacks. Dickert established himself early on as a competent civil litigator.
“I always wanted to be in the courtroom,” Dickert recalled.
His opportunity to sit on the bench came in 1996 with his appointment to Superior Court judge. His most enjoyable experiences were presiding in jury trials – “the ultimate weight of the decision is with the jury, not you the judge” – and he considers child-custody cases as the most heart-rending.
“Frequently, the decisions you made were devastating to one of the parents, but you had to keep focused on the child,” he said. “What’s best for the child and what satisfies the needs of that parent don’t always coincide.”
Most of Dickert’s work today involves mediating civil matters ranging from personal injury and product liability cases to contractual disputes and employment litigation. The out-of-court schedule gives him more time to spend with his wife, his three grandchildren and his nonprofit commitments.
“Right now I’m quite content with keeping myself engaged in one form or another,” he said. “You care about your family and you care about the other things you’re doing, so that’s the balance I’m working on. I think we’re all looking for that balance.”
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org