Pine Tree Legal Assistance has chosen a Maine-born attorney with extensive experience in the justice and equality field to lead the nonprofit organization that provides civil legal assistance to low-income Mainers.
Tom Fritzsche, who grew up in Kennebunk, succeeds Nan Heald as executive director of the nonprofit. Heal, who died of cancer in January, led Pine Tree for over 30 yearsoverseeing the creation of several programs and increasing the nonprofit’s budget from $2.8 million in the early 1990s to $7 million in 2020.
In the past year, the nonprofit said it has worked on more than 7,700 cases involving more than 18,700 people. Their work spans the gamut, with attorneys addressing issues related to housing, domestic violence, farm workers, veterans and indigenous peoples.
When Fritzsche takes over on Sept. 6, he will oversee a staff of 75, including 47 attorneys and 15 paralegals, at six locations across the state.
“I’m proud to bring a broad background of experiences, working with all the different communities Pine Tree serves,” Fritzsche said Thursday afternoon.
Currently, Fritzsche is the executive director of the Milk with Dignity Standards Counsel, a Vermont nonprofit that works to improve housing and working conditions for dairy farmers. He is a graduate of Amherst College and the NYU School of Law.
In an interview Thursday, Fritzsche said his interest in legal aid dates back to the early 2000s, when he was a medical interpreter, pesticide safety trainer and health worker with the Maine Migrant Health Program. Fritzsche said he spent his summers traveling from farm to farm, helping to translate interactions between medical professionals and Spanish-speaking farm workers in need of care. The experience provided Fritzsche with one of his first studies of the needs of vulnerable Maine communities.
His first job after law school was as a staff attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta. Fritzsche also taught at Cardozo School of Law’s Immigration Justice Clinic in New York City.
“He has a lot of experience in many areas,” said Dan Emery, chairman of the board of directors who oversees Pine Tree’s legal counsel. Emery noted Fritzsche’s “enormous” work to uphold human rights and improve conditions for farm workers, as well as his “broad” experience working with the types of customers who need Pine Tree’s help most.
“He’s really devoted his life to working with underprivileged, low-income people,” Emery said.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance was founded in the late 1960s when it was one of the first nationwide civil legal aid organizations.
Heald acquired Pine Tree in 1990 after spending about five years there correcting the exclusion of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs from the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, a change that was eventually accomplished by federal law. Smith College and George Washington University graduates grew up in Oquossoc, in the western mountains of Maine.
As executive director, Heald brought the organization into the age of technology by helping to establish a self-help resource website in 1996—the first online self-help guides produced by a legal aid organization in the country.
Heald saw the formation of several new legal aid programs, including those for children, low-income veterans, and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
heal was honored in 2011 at the White House as a “Champion of Change” for her work in the justice field. In an editorial from 2017 before the Press Herald during the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary, Heald argued for increased funding and support for legal aid organizations across the state.
“When we pronounce the pledge of allegiance, we conclude with ‘justice for all,'” Heald wrote in the piece’s co-author. “We need civil legal aid programs like Pine Tree Legal Assistance to make sure Maine provides justice for everyone, not just those who can afford it.”