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On Island Profile: Terry Halpern

July 24, 2005 — Attorney Terry Halpern's walls are lined with photos and honors. Several dozen frames hold recognition from the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals and the Drug Enforcement Agency, along with pictures from her tenure as a U.S. Attorney–she was one of seven women to hold that position during the '80s ands '90s. She may have a high-profile resume, but now when Halpern goes to work it's not about greeting a large staff and wearing a business suit.
"It's just me and my plants," she says in her typical uniform: a denim skirt, T-shirt and sneakers. In her current practice, Halpern specializes in Social Security disability, but it took her a long time to get to this place.
Halpern started her career as a prosecutor in New York, trying murder, rape and child molestation cases for months at a time.
One day in 1978, her husband presented her with the idea of just sailing away from it all, and Halpern, after taking a leave of absence from her job as chief of narcotics, was on board. They used St. Thomas as a safe harbor during hurricane season and never left.
As it sometimes happens when people find themselves in the Virgin Islands, Halpern says, "Everything just fell into place."
"It was as if it was planned. I believe in God, and I believe things happen for a reason," she says. "We love being here. If I never went back to the states I wouldn't miss it."
The Bridge Lounge at Yacht Haven was just opening and Halpern, who had never worked in a restaurant in her life, took over the management. She worked from before dawn to sunset–creating menus, prepping and cooking the food and getting to know customers.
"I never worked so hard in my life," she says. "I saw around me people doing things you would never imagine," Halpern continues, saying she saw doctors, opera singers, businessmen and others who had taken time out from their lives to sail. "People think you can't leave what you know, but it's easier than you think."
After some time at the Bridge Lounge, it was time to get back into law. She joined the V.I. Attorney General's office in the criminal division, was chief after just four months, and then caught the eye of the U.S. Attorney.
"When I got there, I realized there were lots of unsolved homicides," Halpern recalls. Consequently, she set up a homicide bureau with the police department and the medical examiner and made sure she was at the scene of every homicide. The program, according to Halpern, worked. "I responded to and tried every homicide for 15 years on St. Thomas."
All told, Halpern was a prosecuter for 23 years, with 15 of those spent in the U.S. Attorney's office. When she left in 1993, thanks to some Clinton administration restructuring, she took a break for a year to enjoy her life and spend time with her son, who was five years old. Although she didn't want to leave her job, Halpern now says, "it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I would have died at my desk."
Now her practice focuses on helping people who are disabled. "I liked to prosecute because I liked helping victims. In this practice, I focus on the victims. I don't make a lot of money, but these people would have nowhere else to go."
Her stories no longer have the excitement of a weekly cops and courts show, but Halpern speaks even more passionately about these cases.
"About a year into my practice I get a note," she begins. Halpern goes on to tell the story of a young woman paralyzed from a stroke who was denied disability benefits because she didn't have enough credits. Eleven years had passed by the time the case got to Halpern's desk. "They had miscalculated. I got her 11 years' worth of back benefits."
There are countless stories of her clients who had fallen through the cracks only to be pulled out by Halpern's legal representation. "This is a very low-budget operation. No lawyer wants to do this," she says of her current position. "I got to the point where I want to enjoy and feel good about what I'm doing. I really love it."
What her job lacks in perks and glamour these days, it makes up for in flexibility — something Halpern has never had in her career. Now she works from eight to five, has Wednesdays off and plenty of time to boat, snorkel, garden, exercise, cook, read and spend time with family and friends.
"I wake up each day, I look outside and I am grateful," says Halpern. "I do yoga, pilates, and I've been macrobiotic for 15 years. After being surrounded by so much stress for so long I needed to focus on being healthy."
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