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Defenseless losing their top defender
Bill Botts prepares to retire after serving as executive director of Rappahannock Legal Services since 1984

 Bill Botts is retiring after 26 years as executive director of Rappahannock Legal Services.
SUZANNE CARR ROSSI/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 12/11/2010

By LAURA MOYER

The woman had been evicted from her apartment the week before. Her possessions were put on the back porch and the locks were changed.

But the law was on her side, Bill Botts said in court one day this week, and she should get to move back in. The judge agreed.

Afterward, Botts, his client and her landlord met in a little room next to the courthouse vending machines and calmly worked out the details.

The client would get a new key that day. And the landlord would soon get all rent owed through the end of this year, thanks to assistance from a federal homelessness prevention program.

The case, in King George County General District Court, was just one of more than 200 current cases William L. Botts III is handling for Rappahannock Legal Services, the legal aid provider for Fredericksburg and surrounding counties.

Botts, 63, had planned to retire at the end of this month after serving as the organization's executive director since 1984. A retirement gala, which is open to the public, will be held in his honor Monday night, Dec. 13, at the University of Mary Washington's Jepson Center.

But earlier this week, the Rappahannock Legal Services board of directors asked Botts to stay on until March while it searches for his replacement.

Botts acknowledged that his wife, Sue, wasn't thrilled about the delay.

But for someone who has devoted his career to making sure low-income people have access to justice in civil matters, it would have been out of character to say no.

LESSONS IN THE HOME

Work is a privilege.

That's a value Botts internalized as the oldest of four boys and two girls growing up in a blue-collar Northern Virginia family.

His father, William L. Botts Jr., was a plumber, then went into business for himself as a builder. "My dad actually relished the idea of hard work. He thought that was just so great," Botts said.

Botts remembers working for his father, digging septic ditches with a pick alongside his brothers.

"We were proud of our calluses and proud of being dirty and sweaty," he recalled.

From their mother, Elizabeth, the Botts children learned idealism and optimism.


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WHAT: Retirement gala for Bill Botts WHEN: 6-8 p.m. Monday WHERE: Jepson Center, University of Mary Washington TICKETS: $20; available at Rappahannock Legal Services office, 618 Kenmore Ave. MORE INFO: Speakers will include UMW President Rick Hurley; the Rev. Lawrence Davies; David B. Neumeyer, executive director of the Virginia Legal Aid Society; and area attorneys John Rellick, Ken Mergenthal, Becky Reed and Eric Olsen.

Professional colleagues and friends can't speak highly enough of Bill Botts. Becky Reed, a former legal aid lawyer who worked for Botts and a longtime friend of him and his wife, Sue, said Botts' capacity for hard work is remarkable.

"I was always impressed with his integrity, his commitment to his clients, his willingness to walk the extra mile for them and just the tremendous amount of work he's put in," she said.

She notes that Botts is a dedicated organic gardener, too, though he doesn't always have time during the day to tend to it. "His wife says he turns on the lights and works out there at night," Reed said.

Kathy Anderson, executive director of the Rappahannock Council on Domestic Violence, knew Botts by reputation long before she worked with him professionally.

"He applies law and ethics in every interaction with colleagues and to improve the lives of people who are in some of the most unjust situations," she said.

Some people might let such integrity spill into self-righteousness, she said, but that's not Botts.

"He's humble, too, and he really does live that. But he also has a sense of humor."

Through the years, Bill and Sue Botts have contributed to the community beyond their jobs.

Sue Botts is retired after a long career in education, and the couple have made numerous missions to the Guatemalan highlands.

They help build homes and cinder block stoves to replace unsafe fire pits in people's living spaces.

It's the kind of work that "does something to you," Bill Botts said. "It gets in your head, and it gets in your heart."