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April 6 2011

"A Terrific Adventure"

Groat winner Hartstein '73 talks about life before and during workplace-centered career

Barry Hartstein '73He chipped his tooth on a concrete slab and wore husky-sized pants from Sears when he was nine years old.

Barry Hartstein '73, receiving ILR's Groat Award in New York City Thursday, is better known as one of the nation's most influential employment law attorneys than for the personal journey that has accompanied his career.

"Life has been a terrific adventure," Hartstein said in an interview.

Born in Kokomo, Ind., Hartstein and his two brothers lived in Israel from 1957 to 1960 while their father worked there as an American diplomat.

Moving stateside, the "My Three Sons" scenario, Hartstein said, became "The Brady Bunch" when his father married a widow with three children.

Rhea Hartstein "quickly became 'Mom,' based on putting up with six kids, not taking any nonsense from any of us and giving each of us daily chores."  

They settled in Skokie, Ill., with six kids whose ages spanned six years.

Like television's wholesome "Brady Bunch," the merged household was populated by loving parents and good natured children "who were, at times, mischievous and occasionally broke a few curfews."

Ray Hartstein received a master's degree in industrial relations from the University of Illinois and devoted his career to personnel and human resources issues.

Barry Hartstein, one of the two middle kids of the same age in the merged household, outgrew his chubbiness by high school and became a three-sport varsity athlete.

A dancer in the "Flower Drum Song" school play his senior year and class president four years running, he tried to get along with all the kids, even the tough ones, known as "greasers."

He learned to not take himself too seriously and seems to have mastered that skill.

"I read People magazine. This way, I can talk to people," Hartstein chuckles now. "I should have been a talk show host."  

No slouch in the classroom, Hartstein was accepted at ILR.

"I wouldn't be here if Yale had not been kind enough to reject me," he laughs.

At ILR, Hartstein initially kept a low profile, but that didn't last long. He received the Ives Award for leadership and school service in his sophomore and junior years.

He does remember studying a lot. "I knew there would be a lot of people who would be smarter than me, but no one who would work harder than me."

Hartstein was inspired by professors such as Milton Konvitz and George Brooks. "The education here teaches you to be respectful of a lot of points of view."

His ILR years were times of social upheaval in America and of "incredible growth" for him.

"We all thought that we could change the world," said Hartstein, who marched with his peers in Washington, D.C., to promote change.

He showed up in Skokie on a school break with a Fu Manchu mustache and hair that had grown over his ears.

His father was not pleased.

"All he had to do was look at me … before I went back to school, I got a haircut."

Hartstein remembers writing poetry on bus rides to and from skiing at Greek Peak and a succession of dining hall jobs.

At Willard Straight Hall, he was a hot food line server before being promoted to a short order cook. Then, he became a supervisor in the cafeteria at the new student union on North Campus.

"That turned out to be my one bad work experience at Cornell. They fired me because I left the safe unlocked."  

"I elected to take a deep breath."

Then, Hartstein said, "I moved on."

He certainly did.

Graduating from Northwestern University Law School led to numerous opportunities -- most recently to his role as a shareholder at Littler Mendelson, P.C. With more than 800 attorneys and 50 offices, "all we focus on is labor and employment issues dealing with the workplace."  

He is based in Chicago, where Hartstein and his wife, Sandi, raised their own "Brady Bunch" -- Adam, Brian, Stacey and Kelly.

Hartstein is particularly proud of his expanded family, which includes his children's spouses -- Merritt, Becca, Bryan and Matt. He beams when talking about his grandchildren -- Zach, Brandon, Maya, Charlie and twins on the way.

Hartstein calls Sandi "the glue" that somehow keeps the family together and is convinced that her giving ways have been key to keeping everyone in Chicago.

In his work, Hartstein helps companies sift through what can be wrenching decisions.

"What I like the most -- clients use me as a sounding board. It's a 24/7 business. I don't care if it's Tuesday night or Sunday morning."

"A senior vice president of HR calls 'What should we do?'"

"They struggle with it. Letting people go that you've worked with every day … there are right answers on both sides."

"This area is very, very gray," Hartstein said, referring to employment law. We're trying to make things right in the workplace."

On the edge of Central Park at The Pierre Thursday, Hartstein will receive the Groat Award.

Named for an ILR founder, the award is given annually to an ILR graduate with exceptional professional accomplishment in industrial and labor relations and for service to the school.

Hartstein, on campus at least twice a year, is a Scheinman Institute board member, and a member of both the Cornell University Council and the ILR Advisory Council.

He is an executive committee member of the ILR Alumni Association. While serving as association president, he helped initiate a spring celebration honoring ILR's graduating seniors and graduate students. As he has for the first six celebrations, Hartstein helped plan and will attend this year's May 14 event.

Hartstein was instrumental in setting up the Fall Alumni Roundtables for students. It has become an annual tradition for alumni to return to Ives for informal and, often, heart-to-heart meetings with students.

Hartstein fosters the dialogue with fondness.

"ILRies get a chance to talk with ILRies about their futures. It's someone who was one of them."

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