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New judge took many turns on road to success

2/20/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Newly elected Akron Municipal Court Judge Julie Schafer said her background as a small-business owner, school board member, single mother and foster parent help make her an effective judge.
Photo courtesy of Julie Schafer
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Newly elected Akron Municipal Court Judge Julie Schafer said she has been in the shoes of many of those who stand before her bench.

“I’ve faced a lot of the same adversities that people in front of me have,” she said. “I’ve been where you are. I am a single mom. I know how hard it is. It’s all about the choices you make. Things haven’t been handed to me.”

Schafer, of Fairlawn, 56, hasn’t spent a career in law offices and courts. She instead spent time as a small-business owner and in the film industry before returning to school as a nontraditional student and eventually earning law and business degrees at The University of Akron. She was also a longtime member of the Copley-Fairlawn City Schools Board of Education, serving until her election as judge in the Nov. 5 General Election.

A Toledo native, Schafer said she was initially intrigued by the field of law as a child. At the time, she and her family were living in New Jersey when she appeared in a school play about a crime and trial.

“I played an attorney,” she said. “I thought it would be fun to do this in real life. But life just happened and it never seemed like a possibility.”

Her family eventually returned to Ohio, and Schafer gradated from Medina High School. She headed to Los Angeles then to attend Brooks College and study fashion merchandising.

An accomplished seamstress, she got a job at a fabric store and eventually met people working in the film industry. She also found work in the field and said she worked on costumes from “Star Wars” in the Lucasfilm vault, among other projects. She also said she created a wedding dress for actress Britt Eckland and created items for REO Speedwagon and Rod Stewart.

Schafer lived in L.A. from 1977 to 1988. After a relationship she was in ended, she and her 4-year-old daughter returned to Ohio. It was not an easy time, Schafer said.

“I came back from California with 500 bucks in my pocket, no place to live and no job,” she said.

She took her daughter to register for kindergarten and was dismayed that the program was only half a day, meaning that she’d have to find child care once she did get a job, she said.

“I walked out of Fort Island [Primary School], sat on the curb and put my head between my knees,” she said. “A woman came up and said ‘Let’s go talk.’”

The woman was local businesswoman Norma Rist, who today is a business consultant in West Akron.

“I told her what I wanted to do,” Schafer said. “Norma Rist saved my life that day.”

Their conversation spurred Schafer to move forward on creating her own children’s clothing line called North Coast Kids. The company was the first to set up shop at Canal Place, she added.

While the company was successful, she said there were issues with being able to produce enough items to fill demand. After the business closed, she worked at PneumaticScaleAngelus in Cuyahoga Falls.

With her daughter in school, Schafer said she wanted to get involved but found working full time made it difficult to get to morning PTA meetings. When there was an opening on the school board, she submitted her application.

“I thought, this is something I could do,” she said. “It meets once a month in the evening. I didn’t get picked, but then I ran two years later.”

She calls serving on the school board, which she did for 14 of the next 16 years, a “labor of love.”

“The toughest thing was just learning what the scope of the job was,” she said. “At any given moment, a significant number of board members are new. There’s a lack of understanding as to what our role is. Their job is to hire a superintendent and treasurer and let them do their job.”

Early in her school board tenure, with her daughter now in high school, Schafer returned to school herself and earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Hiram College. Then she decided to revisit her earlier interest in law and enrolled in UA’s dual law and MBA program, graduating in 2002.

Since then, Schafer maintained a private practice in West Akron. It was also during this time that she became a foster parent, a role that eventually led her to adopt two young boys.

“I didn’t want my daughter to be an only child,” she said. “I always wanted to have more kids.”

After serving as a guardian ad litem, she started considering opening her home to children in need.

“My daughter graduated and I had two empty bedrooms, so I started fostering,” she said. “It’s something that needed to be done and something that I can do.”

She estimates she fostered more than 15 children over the years, some as young as a few days.

Her adopted sons are 4 and 7, and she said the duo keeps her on her toes.

“I couldn’t imagine my life without them now,” she said.

She noted her daughter is now 30 and is nearing completion of her law degree at UA.

Schafer said she credits her bailiff, Sandi Morgan, who was her assistant at her law practice, with encouraging her to seek a judicial position. She applied when there was a vacancy on the Summit County Common Pleas Court bench. Schafer, a Republican, wasn’t chosen, but then was asked to run for the seat on Akron Municipal Court.

“When an opportunity opens up, I say, why not?” she said. “I’m not a glass half full, glass half empty person. I’m just thankful I have a glass.”

She faced Gertrude Wilms, chief city prosecutor for the city of Akron, for the seat. In her campaigns for school board, Schafer said she always went door to door, but with two young children, she found that to be almost impossible, as the court serves a wide ranging area: the cities of Akron and Fairlawn, the townships of Bath, Richfield and Springfield, the villages of Lakemore and Richfield, and part of Mogadore.

With a budget of just $20,000 and 10 volunteers, she said the campaign came together, leading to her win with 54 percent of the vote to take the seat being vacated by Judge John Holcomb, who chose not to run for re-election.

“It was a happy, surprising thing,” she said of her win.

Since taking office Jan. 2, Schafer said she’s found the job to be fun, even as she is learning every day.

“It’s like a three-ring circus and the plates are spinning and you are keeping them spinning,” she said.

Even as she’s settling into the job, she has also decided to run for office again this year. Schafer is a candidate in the race for 9th District Court of Appeals and faces incumbent Eve Belfance in the Nov. 4 General Election.

She said she decided to run because no one else had stepped up.

“You can’t let a seat go unopposed,” she said. “I realize I just got this seat, but the bottom line is I don’t like the idea of a seat being unopposed. People should have a choice. Anything I learn here would be a benefit there.”

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