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Innerviews: City firm lands keen legal mind

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Smart? The words in his bio say it all. Phi Beta Kappa. Magna cum laude. Two master's degrees. Doctorate in classical studies. Studied in Italy and Germany. Lectured on grammar, classical civilization and political philosophy.

In high school, his main extracurricular activity was chess. He excelled, of course.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Brian Calabrese is a brain.

All this from the grandson of an Italian immigrant who worked as a school janitor.

At 32, the quiet, soft-spoken Massachusetts native uses his enviable intellect as a public utility lawyer at Robinson and McElwee, a position he accepted last August after interning there the summer before.

A slender build reflects interests beyond the intellectual: He's an avid runner.

 

"I'm from Amherst, Mass., a college town in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts.

"Education was an important thing in my family. My paternal grandparents had very little education. They never even went to high school.

"My grandfather was a first generation Italian immigrant. After the war, he was a janitor in the local school system. My grandmother worked in a factory making shoes until the '70s.

"They lived in a small town in southeastern Massachusetts. My father went to a small college there and became a high school teacher. That led to graduate school ultimately.

"My father is a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts. His brother is professor of education at Ohio State University. I have one brother, a graduate student in chemistry.

"Growing up, I wanted to be a professor of American history. In fourth grade, we had an exercise on what you wanted to do when you grow up and mine was about getting a Ph.D. in American history. Throughout high school, I wanted to go to graduate school and do doctoral work. I was just trying to decide what field to go into.

"Through high school, chess was my main extracurricular activity. I was on the chess team and we did quite well. In eighth grade, we won the state championship. I still play chess with a computer from time to time but haven't done anything competitively since high school.

"I did my undergraduate work in the classics at Bowdoin College on the coast of Maine. Classics is the study of Latin and Greek language and literature primarily with some culture and history.

"I started studying Latin in seventh grade. We could choose from a number of languages and I thought Latin would be interesting. My high school offered Greek my last two years and I took that, too.

"I had an affinity for languages that weren't spoken. I think it was just the formal, mathematical way of working through the grammar, like a puzzle in a way. You put the words together in different forms and try to get the right answer.

"I was certain I was going to become a college professor and teach Latin and ancient Greek. That changed as time went on.

"I went to Italy to study in my first semester as a junior at Bowdoin. After I graduated and before I went to pursue my doctorate at the University of Michigan, I participated in an archeological dig in the south of Italy. It was amazingly extraordinary.

"We were at a vacation community south of Naples and south of Pompeii. We were digging up a Greek religious building. There is a very well preserved ancient city there with a couple of the best examples of Greek religious architecture anywhere.

"The professor directing the dig was flying in a small plane over an artichoke field one day and noticed the outline of a building foundation in a place where the artichokes weren't growing very well. Years later, he ended up directing an excavation to find out what that building was.

"We were excavating a part of the building, digging around a wall looking for what might have been left, and some people found some painted pottery.

"For one of my master's degrees -- I have one in classical studies as part of the doctorate and another one in Italian -- I studied at Middlebury College in Vermont. They run a language institute primarily in the summers. I went there before I went to Italy.

"Middlebury is known for a program called the language pledge, an agreement students sign to speak one language only, the language they are studying. You have to use that language in class and outside of class for six or seven weeks. I had very little Italian and it worked quite well. You learn very quickly.

"The decision to go to law school developed gradually. I had some affiliation with a not-for-profit organization in graduate school and worked on some leases they were drafting. The language was very precise, detailed and careful work. That was interesting to me.

"My academic interests also lean toward politics, so law seemed to be an area in which I could combine both of my interests, a natural progression.

"I did get a chance to teach. I taught at the University of Michigan as a graduate student and for a year after I finished. I taught Latin and ancient Greek and classical civilization.

"Teaching Latin was a good experience. Getting students to read in the language the first time is a wonderful transition to watch. That's the moment when you realize why you are doing this, the purpose for those three or four semesters you invested.

"I worked on the Washington and Lee Law Review in law school. They published an article I wrote that was inspired by my dissertation on the role fear plays in democratic politics and the views of Thucydides, an ancient historian and political thinker.

"The dissertation dealt with his assessment and understanding of the way voters react to scare tactics, like the daisy ads Goldwater ran against Johnson. He has the young girl picking flowers with the idea that something very bad is going to happen if you vote for the other person.

"Thucydides had always been presented as a very dour figure, very unhappy with democratic thought and life such as it was in ancient Greece. The argument I spent a couple of hundred pages talking about was that criticism of him as a democratic thinker was unfair and he was more positively inclined to democratic democracy.

"The general point I was making is that democratic citizens do a good job of recognizing when political figures use fear in their campaigns. They do a good job of understanding it and moving beyond it.

"I first came here as a summer associate in 2011 and again immediately after law school. I found this firm to be very intriguing. They were interviewing at Washington and Lee.

"I explored other options, but I noticed that some members of this firm had studied at my undergraduate institution. A number were students together with one of the professors I'd had in graduate school. The fact that some members had a background similar to mine drew me.

"I enjoyed my time here that summer. It was compelling enough for me to return. I started full time last August.

"I practice public utility law. We represent businesses regulated by the Public Service Commission. I enjoy the detail-oriented work, looking at the complex regulatory structures and rules.

"I'm gradually getting to know the area and trying to find my place in town.

"I started running seriously in graduate school. It became a good thing to order my day around. I live in South Hills, so I find my way down the Carriage Trail and of course, there's the boulevard. I run about three times a week, four or five miles. I'm thinking seriously about the Distance Run this year."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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