Dowd lived life fighting for poor
Maxwell: The savvy lawyer, fierce advocate helped the people.
The day before Jackie Dowd died, my wife and I got to visit her.
It was only for a few minutes. She was in pain and ready to leave this earth.
But she greeted us Friday with the cheeriest exclamation she could muster.
Why? Because, even on her deathbed, Jackie’s first instinct was to try to make us feel valued.
That’s how she lived her life … for others.
Jackie, 67, was a savvy lawyer and fierce advocate — a former assistant attorney general who could’ve banked big bucks working for corporate America.
Instead, she chose to work in the streets — and sometimes even the woods — of Central Florida, serving penniless clients whose only form of payment was often a hug or a teary “thank you.”
Jackie helped many causes but spent the last decade as lead attorney for IDignity, a wonderfully effective nonprofit that helps people who have lost various forms of government ID.
Maybe that problem doesn’t strike you as a big deal or widespread issue. It is.
You need an ID to get a job, rent an apartment, drive a car or do most anything else in America.
Now imagine trying to prove
who you are if you didn’t have a single piece of paper to back you up.
Our community is filled with people who lack that passport to life — veterans in need of benefits, abused spouses who fled violent partners without any of their personal belongings, and families who lost all their valuables to crime or in a fire.
Those people are IDignity’s sole mission. And the need is so great in this community that when IDignity opens its doors at 8 a.m. to help clients each month, the line of desperate souls often wraps around the building.
Jackie was always there, ready to do legal battle with whatever bureaucracy stood between her clients and their right to prove they exist.
I think Jackie was always destined for a life of street-lawyering … she just didn’t know it at first.
Twenty-five years ago, she was making a name for herself as an aggressive prosecutor, going after shady salesmen and getrich-quick hucksters.
But the man who would ultimately end her career as a civil servant was higher-profile — an entertainment giant who appeared on magazine covers and worldwide TV: Lou Pearlman.
Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that Pearlman was a swindler — a boy-band impresario who died in prison a few years ago after being convicted of running a Ponzi scheme.
Dowd knew Pearlman was up to no good nearly two decades ago. And she tried to go after him.
Pearlman, though, had friends in powerful places. He cut checks to politicians, including Dowd’s boss back then, Charlie Crist. He hosted mayors and council members at posh parties. Former Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary made him an honorary deputy.
While Dowd knew Pearlman needed to be stopped, this community’s political elites had little appetite for taking on a man who had such famous friends, threw such memorable parties and had such allegedly grand plans for redeveloping Church Street.
Jackie never learned all the details about why her supervisors at the A.G.’s office never pounced when she was ready to go after Pearlman. Federal officials would later deliver a conviction on other charges. All
Jackie knew was that she needed a new job — one where she could make a difference and pounce whenever she darn well pleased.
“I guess I can thank Lou for that,” she once told me. “I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Jackie could’ve cashed in after leaving the attorney general’s office. Plenty of businesses enjoy having a former prosecutor on their payroll.
Instead, she wanted to help those who could never pay her bills — people like an idealistic 20-something who was arrested for feeding homeless people at Lake Eola.
Jackie won that case and many others. But IDignity was Jackie’s primary client (and home) for the past decade. There, she helped more than 20,000 people regain their identification, their ability to get a job, to drive … to prove they count.
Some attorneys handle a few dozen cases a year. Jackie would handle a few dozen some days.
She was like a noble street lawyer out of John Grisham novel, except Jackie was real-life.
She never had any children. But some of her clients called her “Mom.”
And her work earned her the
Florida Bar’s highest honor for public service, as well as being named a finalist for “Central Floridian of the Year” by the Orlando Sentinel in 2017.
If there was any blessing to her monthslong battle with cancer, it was that people had plenty of time to tell her goodbye.
“The love for her was always there,” said Michael Dippy, Jackie’s good friend and the founder of IDignity. “She just didn’t recognize it until she was in this situation, when her heart was open. And then it overflowed and overwhelmed her to tears.”
In our final moments, I just wanted her to know what a difference she’d made in this world.
She changed lives, gave hope and inspired those around her to be better people.
Not everyone can say they did all that, and it’s an incredible legacy to leave.
Jackie passed away Saturday night with friends at her side.
She wouldn’t have wanted anyone making a fuss. But if you want to do something to honor Jackie, consider making a donation to IDignity. Or check out IDignity.org.
Lawyer Jackie Dowd worked tirelessly to help people without identification restart their lives.