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John Kudel: From Dutchtown in suburban Lilly, Pa. to president of the Maryland State Bar Association

… overcame tremendous obstacles to earn respect

Some parts of John Kudel’s success story make Horatio Alger look like a common man.

Horatio Alger is the quintessential American success story: a man who overcame adversity and became successful because of hard work and perseverance.

Perhaps placing John Kudel in the same role as Alger is hyperbole, but to see where the son of an immigrant mother and a World War II soldier who spent years in a Japanese prison came from, to see what he had to endure, and to evaluate where he is today, is a very impressive tale.

And he did it against a plethora of odds and despite doubters who told him that he would never amount to anything.

However, one person constantly told John that he could be a tremendous success: His mother, Leonora de la Cruz Kudel.

So, when he stood before the Annual Meeting of the Maryland State Bar Association in 2012 to be installed as the Association’s 119th president, and his fellow lawyers listened to his tale of overcoming odds in that plush setting, they had to realize that he was filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

However, the narrative did not end there. The ethnicity that he related to the assembled barristers was later discovered to be questionable.

That is a crazy story for a later date.

This is the heartwarming John Kudel version of the Horatio Alger “American Dream” narrative.

John as a sweet little boy

His early background

When John Kudel said that he came from poverty, he was not exaggerating.

When he arrived In Upper Dutchtown in the mid-1950s as a young boy, his father, Charles, who had spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, was seeking some land that he could turn into a successful farm. The Kudel family lived in Conemaugh, a community just outside of Johnstown, and Charles was seeking a rural area that would be close to his father and the rest of his family.

So, as a young boy, John started school at Lilly Elementary, which, during his 8th grade year, became what is now known as Penn Cambria, where he often felt like an outcast. That was when I first saw him stand up for himself against a classmate in the seventh grade who had been bullying him. The battle finally came down to a physical encounter.

As a senior in high school, many others and I watched him tangle with a much bigger, stronger boy. In fact, I was going to try and break up the encounter before it started, but one of my friends dissuaded me from doing so.

My classmate somehow knew that John would gain the respect of others in this encounter, and the young boy from Upper Dutchtown took the other boy literally to the mat in the parking lot of a local bowling alley and poolroom.

Those who watched finally looked upon the young boy with a sense of respect.

This young man utilized his significant people skills to make an impact, even in those years. John was a charismatic young boy with an effervescent personality, and his pleasing disposition and persona ultimately captured the hearts of the students. A few years later, at Penn Cambria High School, he was elected president of his high school class not once, but three times: in his sophomore, junior, and senior years.

That ability to win over others led him to a successful career as a lawyer and to his eventual election to head the Maryland State Bar Association, a symbolic representation of how he had achieved the American Dream.

John in high school

Here is his career story.

Started working in Washington, D.C. with the FBI

Upon graduation from Penn Cambria in 1970, he was told by his mother to go out and capture the world and leave Upper Dutchtown. So, he had his bags packed on graduation day and headed to the FBI to work as a file clerk making $5,642/year.

In 1971, he became a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.. He learned about the real world in that position, working narcotics and internal affairs. He later became a white-collar crime investigator in the State’s Attorney’s Office in Montgomery County, Maryland.

During that time, he worked hard, enrolling at the University of Maryland where he earned a B.A. in Sociology in 1977. He then matriculated at the American University, Washington College of Law, where he earned a Juris Doctorate degree in 1980. He was admitted to the Maryland State Bar later that year, and he has been practicing law for the past 42 years.

That quest to become a respected member of the legal profession was the culmination of a dream that he had after visiting the office of an attorney in Portage as a child.

John as a young lawyer

“Lawyers help people”

When did he learn that he wanted to be a lawyer?

As a young boy, his father became seriously ill, and he and his mother and father visited the office of Attorney Ferdinand Bionaz in Portage, Pa., about five miles from John’s home. The experience made a life-altering impression on him:

It is one of the starker memories I have of my youth. Whenever my father became sick in 1963, he packed my mother and me into our car and drove to Portage to visit Ferd Bionaz, a lawyer. I was about 10 or 11-years- old, but I remember it like yesterday. They sat me down in his library, and I was surrounded by his law books and sitting at this big table. I was in awe. Everything was so big.

When I was sitting there, I knew one thing: This is what I want to do someday in my life — even though I had no idea what a lawyer was or did.

When we got back to our car, I asked my dad what a lawyer did. He said, ‘Lawyers help people.’

I knew right then, that was what I wanted to do.

Interview with John

That experience planted the seeds that germinated into a career in which he became a criminal defense attorney. He has worked in firms, has formed his own, has worked as a solo practitioner — and he continues doing so today despite having some health difficulties a few years ago.

However, how he arrived at that juncture is what makes this narrative so impressive.

John speaking to the Maryland State Bar Association

Demonstrating resilience to discrimination

While John became the president of his class and of the student council in high school, he had to reach down inside to overcome some blatant discrimination.

This was because some people considered him to be an African-American, which he is not, but kids learn racism at a young age.

When he stood in front of the Maryland State Bar Association as its president in 2012 and delivered a stirring narrative of his odyssey, he also had time to reflect on how he had arrived at that destination:

I felt that it was the culmination of everything I had worked for. The hard work and perseverance actually paid off.

And I also thought about all the people in my life who had doubted me. There were so many times over the course of my life where I could have folded the tent and called it a day. At times, I felt I could not dig myself out of it.

Something inside of me that was probably instilled in me by my mother kept me going. My mother told me to get out of Dutchtown. She said, ’There’s no life for you here. Your dreams are somewhere else.’

Even though it meant leaving her alone, she saw me going to either Washington or New York City to make my way on my own.

Interview with John

What motivated John Kudel?

As he reflected on how he had become so respected in the legal profession that he became the leader of the State Bar Association, he was taken back to the horrific tale of his parents during World War II when his dad was an American soldier from Cambria County and she was a young, beautiful, Filipino girl:

My parents had married before the commencement of World War II, in 1940 or 1941. My dad was a prisoner of war in Japan for three-and-a-half years. He had served in the battle of Corregidor and had been on the Bataan Death March.

At the end of the war, my dad was shipped to a hospital in the Philippines. My mother had not had contact with him for three-and-a-half years.

Everyone was telling my mom that he was probably dead, but she had a feeling that he was still alive. She just kept going from one hospital to another until she found him.

Interview with John

They returned to America where John was born. Since Charles Kudel was from Conemaugh, he wanted to return to be close to his family, but he also had another dream:

My dad wanted to be farmer. He was discharged from the Army after he had served 20 years. So, in 1955, he moved back to Pennsylvania to be close to his dad and family.

He then went about finding a small farm. Ultimately, we moved into Upper Dutchtown. At the beginning, we planted corn and potatoes and hay and had cows, pigs, and chickens. I was a farm boy.

Interview with John

John with his parents, Charles and Leonora Kudel

Dealing with discrimination

When John enrolled in elementary school, he became aware that the other children regarded him as different from them, and this also included a few of their parents who told their children to avoid him.

He can still recall those years:

What I had to deal with in most of my years was that people always regarded me as either Negro or black. As a result, my mom and I became very protective of one another.

I had a bus driver — I can’t remember his name — he used to say ‘Hello, Blackie’ to me every day, and he even said it in front of my friends.

It was humiliating to be called that in front of my friends, and it was a very embarrassing sentiment back then. So, what I did — I think that it was just in my constitution, maybe from my parents — and from my mother, who was such an inspiration,

I said to myself, ‘Dammit, I am going to make these people like me. I am going to be bigger than they are.’

I then became president of my class for three years. And I was also president of the Student Council for two. In my senior year, Mr. [Robert] Primel, the principal at Penn Cambria said, ‘John, you cannot be both. Give somebody else a shot [for student council].’ So, I got Billy Conway to be student council president.

By the time I had reached my senior year, I had problems with [only one person].

Interview with John

So, John’s persona and willingness to overlook and overcome discrimination won the day, and that propelled him into his four-decade legal career as a well-respected man of jurisprudence.

The narrative of John Kudel definitely rivals that of Horatio Alger.

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