Barney Tresnowski, Class of 1998
Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO turned pro bono attorney
Barney Tresnowski is a former President and CEO of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association who later earned his law degree at Chicago-Kent and became a public interest law attorney. Tresnowski began his career in hospital administration after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Public Health. From 1963 to 1967, he served as CEO of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and joined the national Blue Cross Association in 1967 as Vice President responsible for the administration of the intermediary functions of the Medicare program under a contract with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Tresnowski held increasingly greater responsibilities at Blue Cross, eventually taking over as President and CEO of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association in 1981. During his career, he authored articles in a number of professional journals and received the American College of Health Care Executives Silver Medal Award for excellence in management in 1990. In 1994, he received the C. Rufus Rorem Health Services Award for outstanding achievement and contributions to the delivery and financing of health services.
After retiring from Blue Cross in 1995, Tresnowski enrolled at Chicago-Kent and earned his law degree in 1998. After graduation, he joined the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago as a full time pro bono staff attorney. Barney also served on the Board of Directors of Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
What were you like as a law student?
I was older- a bit older. I was 62 years old when I started law school and so, I felt comfortable actually with the students, my classmates. I enjoyed being with them and they enjoyed being with me. We studied and drank beer together. It took me a while to adjust because I hadn’t been in an academic setting in many years. It was a little slow for me, but I caught on. My son-in-law is a psychiatrist, and he told me once life is a like a patchwork quilt. Each patch represents a new phase in your life and the whole quilt is your life. I always thought that patch was over and I was entering a new one. I wanted to be judged as an individual and not on past attributes. That’s how I liked it and that’s how I wanted it.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I didn’t expect to be a litigator; I didn’t expect to practice law, obviously. Practice in the sense of a new career. I’ve always wanted to do public interest law- get out in the community and use the skills I acquired in law school and that I would acquire in my profession to do public interest stuff. I wanted to do it pro bono; I didn’t need to make a living. It wasn’t important to me. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did.
What was your greatest challenge in your career?
People would tell me, “Why are you doing that?” In fact, my oldest son is an attorney. He told me when I retired, “Dad, you’ve got a good reputation in the field. Why don’t you do some consulting?” I said, “No way, that’s not what I want to do. I want to give something back and contribute to the community.” I was on a quest. I was going to continue what I started out when I was a young man to do, which was to take care of people in some way.
What’s been your greatest achievement as a practicing attorney?
The recognition that justice is hard to come by. We live in a nation where the only problem is the legal system is a very complex business, and without counsel to guide it and argue on your behalf, you don’t get justice. My skill as I developed it over time was a great accomplishment to me. I would take a client and work with them and sort out the issues, pursue it in court and get things done. It was more satisfying than my previous career. I never felt the kind of satisfaction of dealing with people in the real world, but here with the law, I was able to deal with individuals in a very personal way. That’s where the satisfaction was.
What would people find most surprising about you?
I have 7 children and 13 grandchildren. I’m very proud of my family; they’ve all done well. Raising a big family- my first wife died many years ago, and then I remarried subsequently. We’ve now celebrated our 28th anniversary. Raising a family is a real challenge and we were very fortunate. The kids all did well- all went to school, got degrees and got into their professions.
What advice would you give to young attorneys just starting out?
It’s the same advice I’ve given to young people forever. I’ve counseled a lot of young people over the years. The best advice I give them is forget about the money. Go where you will learn and find a person to mentor you. When you look at opportunities, find out whether you’re going to learn. The other parts of it will come in time- I believe that very strongly. It was part of my experience. My experience over the years with people who mentored me- that was critical.