- Associated Press - Friday, May 9, 2014

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Digger Phelps inspired basketball players when he coached at Notre Dame.

Unintentionally, he also inspired a central New York school superintendent to do something out of the ordinary.

Phelps gave a speech to Notre Dame students during a parents’ weekend in 1999 and ended with this advice: Find a way to give back.

The words stuck with Nelson Bauersfeld, then the superintendent at Morrisville-Eaton schools and a parent of one of the Notre Dame students.

Five years later, at age 55, Bauersfeld told his wife he had a plan for his upcoming retirement. He would go to law school, get his degree and do free legal work for poor people.

“I wanted to do something totally different, something else I could do that would be helpful,” Bauersfeld said, vowing to have his law degree within 10 years.

Bauersfeld became superintendent of the Mexico school district for five years. Then at age 63, when most people settle into retirement, he went to law school at Syracuse University, and on Friday he graduated at age 65.

His son Brian, an assistant district attorney in nearby Cayuga County and a 2004 Syracuse law school graduate, performed the hooding, a ceremony that marks the earning of a law degree.

Nelson’s degree put him $150,000 in debt. He didn’t get any financial aid, so he had to pay for school through loans.

Nelson Bauersfeld has spent his life taking on daunting challenges. When he was 3, his father died and his mother had a nervous breakdown. He and his older sister were placed in foster care and bounced around for a couple of years before landing with a family on a farm in Westchester County, where he stayed until he graduated from high school.

His foster parents told him he wouldn’t be able to go to college because it was too expensive.

“I guess I’ve always been one of those people who, if you tell me I can’t do something, that’s the way to get me to do it,” he said.

Bauersfeld found a way. He got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the State University of Oswego. From there he went into teaching and school administration.

He saw problems that poorer families faced with custody disputes and other legal problems. And as an Army veteran, he was aware of the issues that other vets faced when they returned to civilian life. And both groups often were unable to afford a lawyer, he said.

Bauersfeld became interested in the law when he was a social studies teacher at West Genesee High School in Syracuse. His interest grew stronger when he was a principal at Weedsport High School and the superintendent in two school districts, he said.

“I saw a lot of people who just don’t know which way to turn sometimes,” Bauersfeld said.

At Syracuse University, he and three other law students started VISION, the Veterans Initiative and Outreach Network, to provide free legal help for veterans. In two years, the university will use a $250,000 state grant to start a full-time free legal clinic for veterans - the first in New York state, Bauersfeld said.

Bauersfeld says he still plans to work for free for poor people, but realizes he needs to have some paying clients to help defray all that debt.

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