Member Spotlight: Ronni F. Begleiter

Tell us about yourself
I was raised in the suburbs of New York City, which is still my favorite place to be. My husband, Marty, and I lived just north of Greenwich Village before we came to Iowa. I probably could not have found Iowa on a US map before I moved here. In fact, my surprise going away party was at a large New York restaurant. The host was trying to figure out where the party guests were gathered without disclosing to me that there was a party. When the Maitre D’ finally got it, he said “Oh, you mean the party for that poor woman whose husband is dragging her to some awful place in the Midwest.”

I did my undergraduate work at Cornell University where I majored in Art History. It was a fun major but I was absolutely unemployable when I graduated. As a result, I got a Masters in Library Science at Columbia University.

I then worked as a law librarian in a big Wall Street law firm. I actually had a staff of three or four people under me. Of course, there were no computers then.

Marty and I came to Iowa in 1977 when he was hired to teach at Drake. I admit the first year was terrible. I was homesick, New York-sick, uncomfortable driving, and scared of driving in snow (still am). But it got better and now Iowa is my home. Marty and I had our two daughters in Iowa, and both of them went to West Des Moines schools. Both of them now live in Virginia.

What are some notable achievements?
I graduated first in my law school class at Drake. I have been listed in Best Lawyers in America, Chambers USA and Who’s Who in America. As part of Best Lawyers in America, I was selected as Best Estate and Trust lawyer by my colleagues here in Des Moines.

I am also proud that I chaired the Committee that birthed the Clive Public Library. I was very involved in building support for a bond referendum, getting the referendum passed, designing the library, and getting it up and running.

Perhaps my most notable achievement was being (as far as I know) the first attorney in Des Moines to seek out a “Mommy Track” position. Back in the early 80s, most of the firms were unwilling to accommodate me, but the Davis Brown firm hired me on a “part time” basis. My arrangement with them was actually highlighted in an article in the ABA Journal. For a while, I was the “go to” person for lawyers who wanted to work part time.

Why did you choose to practice law?
When Marty and I moved to Iowa, we planned to start a family. Unfortunately, we had a little trouble doing that. In the meantime, I decided that I needed a career if we proved unable to have children. Of course, I was pregnant before I even quit my job to start law school.

Did you always want to be an attorney?
No. My only experience with law was an uncle who was a partner at a big firm in New York. He boasted that he didn’t take a vacation in the first ten years he was there. That turned me against being a lawyer until I realized that not all lawyers worked as hard as he did.

What was your favorite part about being an attorney?
The people I met. Most of my clients were lovely, and several became friends. Of course, I had my share of horrible clients, but I tended to fire them, rather than put up with them. I also enjoyed learning about farmers and farming. I had a lot of farm clients and was invited to their farms where I actually drove a combine. Pretty heady stuff for a person from New York.

What do you like to do in retirement?
So far, my retirement has not gone as anticipated. I retired at the end of 2018, and my husband promptly developed serious heart issues. So I spent most of 2019 honing my nonexistent nursing skills. Marty and I spent most of 2020 in quarantine because of the pandemic. And then in 2021, Marty passed away. Once I get my feet back on the ground, I plan to travel and spend time with my daughters and granddaughter in Virginia. I have already booked a trip to Antarctica, which is where Marty and I were going before he got sick. After that trip, I will have visited all seven continents.

One retirement activity I have enjoyed is the Ray Society at Drake. The Ray Society is a life-long learning organization. It offers classes on everything from coffee to the Crusades. I heartily recommend it to those who are free in the daytime.

What is the best thing about the Polk County Bar Association?
Over the years, I have attended some excellent CLE presentations sponsored by the PCBA. I have also enjoyed the collegiality of the Polk County Bar members. With very few exceptions, they manage to be strong advocates for their clients in the courtroom and supportive colleagues outside the courtroom.

What is the best place to visit in Polk County?
I love visiting the zoo and have great memories of taking my kids and granddaughter there. I also love going to the Civic Center and to the Des Moines Arts Festival. Marty and I only missed one or two Arts Festivals in all the years we’ve lived in Des Moines.

What did you want to be while you were growing up?
I don’t know that I had a career goal as a child. I thought I wanted to be a doctor until my brother got a mosquito bite in his eye. His eye swelled shut, and the doctor had to open it to examine it. (Doctors still made house calls then.) I promptly got sick to my stomach, and immediately realized medicine was not for me.

As an art history major, I wanted to be a museum curator. I actually got a job offer as an assistant to the print curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but he felt honor bound to tell me that no one could live in Philadelphia on what the Museum could afford to pay. I also thought about being a travel agent because I love to travel, but then I realized that the customers, not the travel agents, do most of the traveling.

If you could choose anyone, who would you pick as your mentor and why?
I would pick Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was brilliant, she was feisty, and she left the world and the law much better than she found them.

What is your favorite book?
I love to read and have tons of favorite books. As a child, I Ioved Black Beauty. As a young woman, I loved The Prophet and The Little Prince. As a mother, I Ioved reading The Velveteen Rabbit to my kids. I will read anything by Anne Tyler, Ann Patchet, or Alice Hoffman. My favorite light reading is mysteries, especially if they take place in London.

What songs would you include on the soundtrack of your life?
My soundtrack would be similar to the one in Forrest Gump. I was an activist in high school and college so the protest songs of the 60s (“We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin in the Wind,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”) would definitely be on my soundtrack. I saw a lot of Broadway plays when I lived in New York, so the soundtracks of Hair, Man of La Mancha, A Chorus Line, and countless other musicals would be there, too. Early rock  & roll (“Runaway,” “Teen Angel,” “Mack the Knife,” and anything by Neil Sedaka, Tommy Roe, Bobby Vee and Bobby Vinton); and of course, the Beatles. I usually play 50s on 5 and 60s on 6 on my car’s Sirius radio.

Words to live by?
Paul McCartney once said, “I’m trying to write a decent song. Someday I’ll get there.” I am still working on my words to live by. In a pinch, the Golden Rule always works.