HBANJ President Dan Mateo In The Spotlight!
Watch the Philadelphia Inquirer’s exclusive video and read the insightful article, below:
Lawyer honors his Camden roots
“Nothing that happens in a courtroom [is] quite like being chased down a street,” the father of two says. “Talk about a life lesson. It makes you tough in a different sort of way.”
Two weeks ago, Mateo was sworn in as president of the 300-member Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey. He had the ceremony in Camden, because he wants to emphasize that anything is possible – even for kids who are growing up in one of America’s poorest cities, as he did.
“We invited 10 high school students,” he says. “It was important for them to see 200 to 300 Latino lawyers, dressed up in our finest and giving back to the community.”
Also present were students from New Jersey’s law schools; the association encourages them to mentor high schoolers. It also provides close to $30,000 annually in scholarships, “and this year we hope to provide even more,” he says.
I meet Mateo outside Our Lady of Mount Carmel-Fatima Church, an anchor for generations of Italians and, later, Puerto Ricans in South Camden.
The Cherry Street rowhouse where he spent part of his childhood is around the corner; vacant lots line the north side of his old block, but houses on the south side are neatly painted.
“Being here is super-emotional,” says Mateo. “It brings back a lot of memories, good memories. Even though it was a very poor neighborhood, there was a sense of safety and community.
“People looked out for each other,” he recalls, a bit wistfully, as we drive past clusters of rowhouses separated by vacant lots. “If you got into something you shouldn’t be doing, the next thing you know someone would be calling your grandparents.”
Mateo attended Sacred Heart School, graduated from Camden Catholic, and earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
He’s now a litigation partner in the Princeton office of the global law firm Reed Smith, where he mainly handles pharmaceutical clients. He has worked there since 1998.
“Dan is one of our finest attorneys,” says Nanette Mantell, team leader for the firm’s life sciences practice group in Princeton.
Despite his position and his election to head the bar group for a year, Mateo insists, “I don’t view myself as any different from any of the people who are living in Camden today.”
What’s missing for many young people in the city is “a real sense of what is possible,” he continues. “When poverty is concentrated, the worldview of the people living in poverty is very small.”
His friend and former Sacred Heart classmate Camden Mayor Dana Redd also believes it’s essential for city youngsters to “see the talent that has emerged” from their hometown. “I’m very proud of Dan, and proud that he held his installation dinner in Camden,” says Redd, who was a guest at the event, along with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and other dignitaries. “I think it spoke volumes about him.”
The soft-spoken Mateo says he could never have imagined “working for one of the largest law firms” in the world when he was running (or perhaps, running away) on the streets of South Camden.
“The biggest lesson for me of having done well is that my world view has changed,” he says. “I think that’s what most parents want for their children – to give them lots of experiences as they grow up.”
That’s why he often brings his daughters, ages 9 and 12, along when he returns to South Camden for what he calls a “reality check.”
What the neighborhood taught him “is fundamentally about taking those street smarts and applying them to your life,” Mateo says. “It’s about perseverance, no matter what challenges you might face.”
Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@ phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter.