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Half Century Separates Youngest, Oldest Students at Ave Maria Law

law9aMellina Fortunato was five years old when John Arceri retired from a career as a utilities company executive in 1997. But even though they were born 50 years apart, they are facing the same challenges today as first-year students at the Ave Maria School of Law.

Few students in Florida have ever started law school as young as 18, as Miss Fortunato has. And at 68, Mr. Arceri is one of the oldest - if not the oldest - first-year law student ever in the state of Florida.

For Mr. Arceri, going to law school is the fulfillment of a life-long dream.

"I was always interested in law," he said, "but my parents pushed me into engineering." After graduating from college with an engineering degree, he spent 33 years as an executive with Consolidated Edison, the utility company serving New York City, retiring in 1997 to Marco Island.

He got involved in local politics, served four years on the Marco Island city council, and continued to harbor an interest in the law, but there was no law school in the area.

"When Ave Maria moved to Naples," he said, "my wife, Liliana, who had been hearing about it for 45 years, put a sign on the door that said simply: LAST CALL."

law6aMiss Fortunato said she also had law school in mind for several years, and applied while in her senior year at Mary Baldwin College, a venerable women's college in the Shenendoah Valley of Virginia. She started her freshman year at Mary Baldwin when she was 14, right out of eighth grade at Dunbar Middle School in Ft. Myers, as part of program that admits about 20 young women each year who are capable of handling college work without finishing high school.

Ave Maria's location and its religious nature were the main drawing points for her.

"Ave Maria's Christian values were a big factor," she said. "I like that there is a wider perspective on God, morality and ethics that likely is not available anywhere else." The school's proximity to her home in Ft. Myers, where she lives with her mother, also was important, she said.

She majored in communications at Mary Baldwin but said she isn't entirely sure yet what area of law she'd like to practice. "Right now, I'm interested in immigration law, family law and intellectual property," she said.

Mr. Arceri, having spent about 40 more years thinking about this than Miss Fortunato, has more definite ideas.

"I see three things I can do," he said. "I have been an expert witness in numerous court cases involving utility companies and believe I can assist there on the legal side. I want to do pro-bono work in civil cases for people who can't afford legal representation. And, as a Catholic, I want to help with pro-life issues from a legal perspective."

Moving from a retirement lifestyle into the rigors of a first-year law student is challenging, he acknowledges.

"I've actually trained physically for this, losing 35 pounds and getting in shape this year," he said. After a few months, he said he's "enjoying it immensely," even though it requires 12-14 hour days. "If I enjoy something, I don't get tired," he added.

arceri1Staffers at the Florida Bar Association said they could not recall an older first-year law student in the state than Mr. Arceri. There has, however, been at least Florida law student younger than Miss Fortunato. Stephen Baccus, now 40, graduated from the University of Miami law school at age 16 and was admitted to the Florida bar at age 17 after receiving a special waiver of the state's minimum age requirement of 18 for bar admission. He is widely believed to be the youngest person ever admitted to the bar in the United States.

Miss Fortunato and Mr. Arceri say the law school and their fellow students have been highly supportive.

Both also say they draw support from their families, which for Mr. Arceri includes four children and eight grandchildren. His grandchildren also present him with another new situation for him.

"My grandkids have always sent me their report cards," he said. Now, they're telling me they're waiting to see mine." Right, Mr. Arceri with his wife and grandchildren
(Other photos of Mr. Arceri and Miss Fortunato by Royce Hood,


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