By Cathy Rubin and Jennifer McGinnis
Ask Joseph Hartzler about his job as the lead prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, and he'll talk about his sons.
Ask him how he copes with his multiple sclerosis - same thing.
Hartzler, 48, said people who know him best would say he brings dignity to his job and is proud of his three boys - Alex, 15, Adam, 12, and Matthew, 8. Hartzler spoke Tuesday to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Allegheny District Chapter at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers, Downtown.
It was Alex who gave Hartzler the final go-ahead in 1996 to move to Oklahoma City and then Denver for two years to try the government's case against Timothy McVeigh.
"We were sitting around the kitchen table and I tried to wax eloquent on the importance of this case to America and my oldest just wasn't buying it," said Hartzler, of Springfield, Ill. "So I figured anyone could prosecute this case and I was the only person who could come to the dinner table with my wife and three kids."
Then Adam, an avid basketball fan, reminded his older brother, "Alex! Dad's a lawyer. This is like playing for the NBA."
It was settled.
Arney Rosenblat, spokeswoman for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's headquarters in New York, met Hartzler in 1995 when his family nominated him for the organization's prestigious Father of the Year award - an honor that earned him a meeting with President Clinton.
His three sons drew pictures of their father and described how he has taught them to play basketball and helped them learn to use computers, despite sometimes needing to use a wheelchair.
"Even though he can't run with them, he can still be a model parent," Rosenblat said. "He's very much a family man ... that's the core of his existence."
She said Hartzler also has been instrumental in educating the public about MS and teaching employers that many people with the disease can have successful careers.
"By admitting that he has MS, he's taken away a lot of the stigma and made it OK to have MS and continue working," she said. "You don't really need to be able to bound up stairs to be a good attorney."
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling, disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. It is not fatal, but there is no cure.
For years, Hartzler noticed problems walking - his right foot kept dragging, and he kept stubbing his toe. While visiting Amsterdam, he kept tripping on the cobblestones, but the symptoms would come and go. After tests ruled out a brain tumor or a blood clot, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988.
"There's a level of relief when you get the diagnosis because it has a name and you realize you're not imagining something is wrong," Hartzler said. "Then you have to get past the initial shock of not being in perfect health."
At first, Hartzler would hope for rainy days so he could carry an umbrella to work and use it as a cane. Then he couldn't get to the soccer fields to see his son play, so he got an electric scooter. These days, Hartzler still is able to use a walker, but must use hand controls instead of pedals when he drives.
Hartzler said his physical disability may mean it takes him longer to do routine chores, but the disease hasn't affected his ability to interact with his sons - he coaches their baseball, basketball and football teams - or hindered his professional life.
Hartzler, who has worked since 1991 as assistant U.S. attorney for the central district of Illinois, said what was especially satisfying in trying the Oklahoma City bombing case was that he felt he brought dignity to the justice system after the hype surrounding the O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers trials damaged Americans' faith.
McVeigh received the death penalty for his role in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people in April 19, 1995.
"I wanted to show we can serve justice with dignity, and from what I hear, that's the message that came back," Hartzler said.