It was the early 1970s, a time when Jacksonville was still in the midst of desegregation.
A school bus driver used racial language toward three African-American sixth-graders. The students got upset and were kicked out of the school system.
A young William Van Nortwick Jr. and two other attorneys went before the school board to get the children back in school. Ultimately, they were successful.
A decade or so later, Van Nortwick worked with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid to create a nonprofit that received a grant to open a health clinic in an underserved part of town.
Those are two highlights Van Nortwick, 68, shares as he looks back at his career of ensuring equal access to justice for everyone. A career balanced with clients who pay the bills and those who pay the heart.
"You may work five hours helping someone solve a tremendous problem in their life," said Van Nortwick, who's been a 1st District Court of Appeal judge since 1994. "I think you get more pleasure out of that in terms of professional satisfaction."
Van Nortwick's pro bono efforts began with JALA shortly after he graduated from the University of Florida's law school.
During his 23 years as a practicing attorney he continued to volunteer with JALA, the same group that is presenting him with the Robert J. Beckham Equal Justice Award during a ceremony Wednesday. The event is 6 p.m. at the Hyatt Downtown.
Van Nortwick has a soft spot for JALA, for whom he served on the board of directors and was president for two years.
"It's a remarkable law firm. There were truly great lawyers working for legal aid at that time," he said, "usually at a salary one-fourth" what they could make at a private attorney.
Van Nortwick's dedication to pro bono efforts didn't end when he became a judge. That fact is among many that impressed Holland & Knight attorney Donny MacKenzie, who nominated Van Nortwick for the award.
MacKenzie said Van Nortwick could have easily "retired" from the pro bono cause when he moved to Tallahassee to be a judge. But he didn't.
The judge has chaired the statewide One Campaign, aimed to encourage one lawyer to take one client for one case.
He's been on The Florida Bar Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services since 1993.
And he is a former president and board member for the Florida Bar Foundation, which helps fund agencies that provide pro bono services. (His wife, Maria Henderson, is the only non-attorney to serve as president of the foundation.)
"When he assumed his seat on the appellate court in Tallahassee, he did not stop," MacKenzie said. "Instead, he stepped up his effort and, within the confines of his office, continued the pursuit. All the while with grace, dignity, compassion and civility."
Like others, Van Nortwick is concerned about what he called a "perfect storm" — a reduction in state funds and a drastic drop in money the foundation receives from interest on lawyers' trust account at the same time a declining economy creates more clients who need pro bono services.
For example, Van Nortwick said, at its height, the foundation received $60 million a year, most of which supported legal aid services. Now, it receives about $5 million. The past two years, he said, the Legislature had money in the budget to help, but it was vetoed by the governor.
In his acceptance speech, Van Nortwick plans to talk about those who led him to understand the importance of pro bono work and helping others get access to services.
It was an ideal he learned early on from his father, a doctor who often spent Saturdays at the former University Hospital helping patients in need.
And one he's carried through his career, sharing with others along the way.