Catawba College Trustee Mona Lisa Wallace and husband Lee Wallace have made a substantial gift to the institution which moves them to the benefactor level (lifetime giving of more than $1 million). The couple says their gift reflects the importance of education in their lives and the importance of Catawba College to the Salisbury-Rowan community.
"If you can make a difference, you should," Mona said, noting that she and Lee believe that "everyone can make a difference; it's just a matter of how hard you want to try at it."
The Wallaces' most recent gift is directed to Catawba's Ralph W. Ketner School of Business. Mona serves on a College board of trustee subcommittee charged with making recommendations to strengthen and improve that program. It was her subcommittee's recommendation which led to the hiring of Catawba College Alumnus Phillip Kirk, Jr. '67 as the College's new vice president of external affairs. In his new capacity, Kirk will make substantive connections between the institution's academic programs and the broader community and help advance Catawba.
And, Mona Wallace, motivated in part by her desire to get other women involved in business, couldn't be happier. "Phil Kirk is a marketer and he's connected – he's what Catawba has not had. His heart is right, he has proven ability and connections and he understands education. Overall, I think he's unparalled in potential – he's awesome."
Mona, who is today a successful Salisbury attorney, grew up in Rowan County and attended North Rowan High School where she served as student body president. She decided in the seventh grade to become a lawyer after she said she realized "that not everyone could stand up for themselves."
She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and finished her undergraduate degree in three rather than four years "so I could save my scholarship money for my first year of law school." She graduated a National Merit Scholar in 1976 and went on to complete her law degree at Wake Forest University.
Mona met Lee Wallace, who had earned a business degree from Chapel Hill several years earlier, shortly after she graduated from Chapel Hill. The couple was married in 1976 and remained in Salisbury because of their families and their love for the town. Lee, a commercial developer with Wallace Realty Company and Belle Development Corporation, and his family were instrumental in the development of Salisbury, having built the first condominiums and a number of residential neighborhoods.
In 1979, Mona began her practice of law working with Graham Carlton, primarily handling family law. However, she recalled, it wasn't long before a worker for Fluor Daniels working at the local Celanese plant came in complaining of shortness of breath. She soon realized that it was due to his work environment and that he suffered from asbestosis. Some of her family members had worked for the railroad and in shipyards and had suffered similarly from work-related diseases, including asbestos cancers. Her passion was born.
She decided to concentrate her practice on suing large companies which failed to provide a safe work environment for their workers and also kept from them the nature and cause of their terminal illnesses. During the 1980s, thousands of similar cases came her way and with her successes, she built a reputation as a thorough and smart litigator.
Along the way, she and Lee had two daughters, Whitney and Lane. Whitney just completed her 1st year of law school at Wake Forest School of Law. Lane is a rising senior at the Keenan Flagler School of Business at UNC Chapel Hill. Mona recalled that their similar passions in law and business were due to their having been forced to accompany her on nights and weekends to visit clients, many dying from cancer. "The girls saw first-hand the adverse effects the occupational cancers had on wonderful peoples' lives and they learned just how hard I worked to level the playing field and make a difference for those clients," she said.
Their daughters, Mona continued, were also inspired by Lee's improvement of an already successful family business, and by his love and support for them all. She explained that many nights he prepared dinner for all of them while she put in the hours to grow her practice.
Catawba College Alumnus and fellow Trustee Bill Graham '83 of Salisbury joined Mona in her practice in 1992. Their firm now represents individuals in occupational disease claims and in other workers compensation and civil cases. Additionally, the firm has a significant automobile, personal injury and class action practice.
"I'm very good at my job because I believe in my clients and I believe in what I do," she continued. "I would never let someone take advantage of my clients. Professionally, I am a stonewall, but personally, I am very easygoing. Our firm does medical monitoring for thousands of workers and has picked up hundreds of cancers early, saving a significant number of lives. Most of our clients are at a higher risk for the development of cancer so we follow many of them closely and ours is a long-term, close bond. I've found if you don't do the work, you don't get the results."
As busy as she is in her law practice, Mona makes time for service. She served several years on the Catawba College Board of Visitors and chaired that board for two years, before she was tapped to serve on the College Board of Trustees. She serves on the Wake Forest Law School of Visitors and in July, will be sworn in as the treasurer of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, the largest public interest law firm in the nation.