Gail Waller ’71 went to law school knowing that she wanted to work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“It only took me 35 years,” she laughed. “But it’s where my heart has always been.”
For almost six years, Waller has volunteered with the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU of Illinois as senior staff counsel. What started as three days a week has now grown to an almost full-time position.
“If you are doing something because you love what you do, it will take over a bit,” Waller said. “I’ve decided at this point in my life I don’t mind.”
Waller’s work has centered on the ACLU’s institutionalized persons project. While the project also works with people in juvenile detention centers, jails, and prisons, Waller’s work focuses on providing assistance to people with disabilities in Chicago.
“It is a population with very little clout,” she said.
Waller and the ACLU have filed three class-action suits on behalf of people with developmental, physical, and mental disabilities in the state who have been required to live in institutional settings that are not the most appropriate for their needs.
Civil liberties issues became a passion for Waller during high school. After spending her childhood in a small town in Mississippi during desegregation, Waller moved to Nashville, Tennessee, for the end of high school.
“I didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “It was different when we moved, and it sort of hit me that there were all of these ways of thinking that were not what I grew up with, and they seemed to be important.”
During college, that passion was stoked by her professors and classmates. She became involved in the anti-war movement and found a love for constitutional law.
“My years at R-MWC were really life changing for me in terms of intellectual development and political consciousness,” she said. “I remember my roommate’s father looking at me one time and saying I should be a lawyer. That had never occurred to me. I told him he was right.”
After graduating from R-MWC a year early with a political science major, Waller, who has been a member of the Board of Trustees at the College since 2006, earned her law degree from Georgetown University in 1974. She and her husband, Tim Schwertfeger, whom she met in law school, married in 1975 and have a son, Andrew.
After law school, Waller practiced law for a small firm before accepting a position as in-house counsel for Quaker Oats. There she handled mergers and acquisitions for 10 years before taking a 20-year hiatus.
Today, she is back doing what she loves and helping an often overlooked population in Chicago.
“Our clients are very brave people,” Waller said. “It is difficult for them to stand up and put themselves on the line. Institutional living is institutional living, and it’s rarely the best place to be. We believe they need a choice.”