FALA Honors Robert Alan Saasto, Esq.

A FALA cocktail hour and dinner at The University Club

On February 1, 2008, over 20 members and guests of The Finnish American Lawyers Association attended a cocktail hour and sit down dinner at The University Club at 1 West 54th Street in New York City. Judge Pessala, FALA executive director, surprised Robert Alan Saasto, President of FALA, by calling William Pauley, Justice of the United States District Court, Southern District, John Lahtinen, Justice of New York Appellate Court, 3rd District, and Tom Hakala, FALA Treasurer, to present to Robert Alan Saasto from the FALA the Lifetime Achievement Award “For His Service and Dedication to the Finnish People and Finnish Social, Civic and Cultural Organizations.”

Robert was always keenly aware of his unique background, being of 100% Finnish origin. Robert’s mother, a renowned artist, Irene Aunio-Saasto, was born in Isokyrö, which is located near Vaasa in Finland. His father Ernest, also an attorney, was born in the U.S.A. All of the grandparents originated from Finland. Robert and his twin brother Ernest were born in FinnTown, Brooklyn, New York. As customary after the second World War, his parents did not teach their children Finnish, (which included their sister Laurel) although they were frequently brought to the Finnish Hall, Imatra Hall, for the dances, and attended the Finnish Church. Finnish was spoken in the home, but only when the parents did not want the children to know what was being said.

Robert commenced his involvement with Finnish activities and associations by becoming involved with the Imatra Hall in Brooklyn New York. In 1987 he used his legal skills, without fee, to change the by-laws to ensure that any sale or disposition of the building and land would inure to the benefit of the Finnish community. In 1991 he was very active in the planning of the 100th year anniversary celebration and was instrumental in dealing with the appropriate governmental bodies to effectuate adding Finlandia Street below the street sign for 41st Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues in Brooklyn). The name change remains there to date and stands as a recognition of the numerous Finn coops and businesses in the neighborhood known as Sunset Park, or FinnTown.

In 1992 Robert, together with his twin brother Ernest, traveled to Finland to spearhead the publicity for the Roots in Finland program sponsored by Suomi Seura, to encourage people of Finnish descent to search for their roots in Finland, and thereby maintain a connection with Finland. Robert was chosen because he had for several years prior thereto conducted research to locate and visit his Finnish relatives from both his mother’s and father’s sides of the family. Robert wrote about his experiences traveling in Finland and locating 98 pikkuserkku (second cousins) in all of the Finnish American newspapers. Suomi Seura requested that he reiterate his experiences in Finland, which he did, in interviews with all the major Finnish newspapers (Helsingin Sanomat, Aamulehti and Lapin Kansa in Rovaniemi) and on Finnish TV ( Hyvää Huomenta Suomi, the equivalent of Good Morning America in the U.S.A.).

Upon completing the “publicity tour” in Finland, Robert commenced studying Finnish seriously and joining Finnish organizations. He joined the Masonic Sibelius Lodge, which had at the time many Finnish members and where the predominant language during the social gatherings was Finnish. In 1993 he served as the Master of Sibelius Lodge. Although the number of Finns in the Lodge decreased over the years, Robert has remained an active member to date as a Trustee.

In 1994 Robert was elected to the Board of the Finnish Newspaper Company, the publisher of the New Yorkin Uutiset in Brooklyn New York. In 1995, while serving as the Treasurer, he did all of the legal work, without charging a fee, to effectuate a sale of the paper to Amerikan Uutiset Inc., the Finnish American newspaper in Florida. He also then effectuated a sale of the building and distribution of the funds to the remaining shareholders.

Robert continued his involvement with the Imatra Hall. Over the ensuing years he ran several of the beauty contests and gave speeches, some in faltering Finnish, at special events, including Mothers Day. In January of 1997, the Imatra Hall was sold to the Resurrection Church. Robert handled all the legal work and enabled the sale to come about by personally giving a second mortgage to the Church and lending Imatra over $20,000 to accomplish required repairs.

The proceeds from the sale of Imatra Hall were used to fund the Imatra Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation. Robert did all of the legal work and interfaced with IRS free of charge to form the foundation. The Imatra Foundation has been annually giving money to Finnish organizations to date, with Robert acting as the President of the Board since its inception over 10 years ago.

In 1997, Robert formed the Mettala Foundation, a private charitable trust established under the Will of William Mettala, who left approximately $300,000 for the benefit of “Finnish causes”. Robert has been serving as the Trustee for over 10 years now. In that capacity he has and continues to support many Finnish endeavors, including the Finlandia Center Foundation (where he serves on the advisory board) and the Finlandia Foundation New York Metropolitan Chapter (where he served on the Board 2001-2002 and for whom he acts as the MC for the annual dinner dance).

As the Trustee of the Mettala Foundation, Robert also established a scholarship to support a Finnish lawyer designated by the Dean of Helsinki Law School to attend the graduate law degree program at Fordham Law School in N.Y.C. That scholarship program ran for four years, from 2000 to 2004.

In 2002, Robert, together with Judge Pessala, formed the Finnish American Lawyers Association, FALA. The FALA was formed to create a forum for Finnish and Finnish American lawyers to “network” and socialize, without a formal structure requiring dues, committees, etc. There are now well over 80 members, with members in not only the U.S.A. and Finland, but in several countries throughout the world. A group such as this would not have been possible without the internet. The content of the website consists of the articles written by Robert for the Finnish American papers about the events of the FALA, which were organized by Robert together with Judge Pessala. The FALA website at finnishamericanlawyer.org has brought in many of the members, particularly outside the U.S.A..

A great example of the networking possibilities is that of Henrikki Harsu, who was one of the recipients of the Mettala scholarship to the Fordham Law School Graduate Program in 2003. While at Fordham, he attended an FALA event and met FALA member Lauren Hakala, who was attending New York University Law School. Lauren had come to the event with her father Tom Hakala, the FALA Treasurer. They are now married and living and working for major law firms in London.

In April of 2004, Robert was featured on the front cover of LakimiesUutiset, (Lawyers’ News) the leading and foremost monthly magazine distributed to all the lawyers and judges throughout Finland. In a five page article which included pictures of Robert in front of the Courthouse literally outside of his Brooklyn New York office, Robert spoke about his Finnish roots and his law practice, which concentrated in personal injury matters representing plaintiffs who have been injured.

Robert has been a contributor to all of the Finnish American papers, both financially and as a correspondent. He has contributed articles over the years related to all of the activities of the numerous Finnish organizations noted above. With a busy law practice, it is incredible that he has devoted such time and energy to “Finnish causes”. When questioned as to why, Robert ponders and answers that it has to do with his perception of himself as being uniquely of 100% Finnish background, which has and will continue to distinguish himself from all his other American friends and colleagues. Robert can’t help but chuckle, perhaps with a touch of chagrin, when he explains that several of his lawyer colleagues went on to become the President of the New York State Trial Lawyers, while he became the President of the Finnish American Lawyers Association. It was only fitting that the FALA accordingly honor Robert Saasto, in front of his Finnish American lawyers, judges and friends.

Judge John Pessala, Executive Director FALA

Tom Hakala presenting the award to Robert Alan
Justice John Lahtinen, Judge John Pessala,
President Robert Saasto, and Justice William Pauley .
President Robert Saasto with Judge John Pessala. President Robert Saasto with his wife Mary Ellen.