Doing a Good Turn Daily
Eagle Scout John Pyfer Jr. doesn't just help old ladies cross the street
Published in 2004 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 31, 2004
Updated on August 5, 2015
Upon returning to his homeland from the African wild a century ago, British military hero Robert Baden-Powell was amazed to discover the wealth of boys reading the survival manual he had penned during his service.These pages, rewritten by Baden-Powell in a nonmilitary version titled Scouting for Boys, are recognized today as the beginnings of the international organization that is the Boy Scouts, with Baden-Powell proudly acknowledged as the group’s founder.
The methods for survival that Baden-Powell described have extended beyond the page, as the Boy Scout teachings have eclipsed the millennium, expanded the globe and served as the foundation for millions.These guidelines for bravery, courtesy and self-accountability have turned kids into colonels, lads into leaders, teens into tycoons.
And they have molded men like Lancaster attorney John F. Pyfer Jr.
“I don’t want to sound hokey, but I can tell you that every morning before I go to the office, I say the Boy Scout Law,” Pyfer now says in reference to the 12 Scout Laws (Kindness, Loyalty, Bravery among them) that have guided his life for the past 50 years.
“And each night,” he continues, “I ask myself if I have followed the Boy Scout Oath. I think if you follow these two things, that’s all you really need.”
Yet, rules and an oath mean little without a person who can apply them. For Pyfer, this guidance can be traced to his boyhood Lancaster home, where legal proceedings could take place at any hour, day or night.The local justice of the peace was Pyfer’s mother, Myrtle.
“It was not uncommon for me to be under the desk listening to what was going on,” Pyfer recalls of the room that today serves as a piece of his Pyfer & Reese, Willow Street branch office. “Then I’d ask my mother questions.… I loved the giveand- take.The respectful argument.”
And none can argue, respectfully or otherwise, that young Pyfer listened well in what is still referred to as his “mother’s office.” For the little sponge that absorbed so much of the legalities surrounding his youth grew up to wipe the table clean, becoming a force in both Pennsylvania and East Coast law.
“He doesn’t shy away from an unpopular cause,” says Ephrata attorney Dennis Ward, in reference to some of the compelling criminal cases handled by his close friend Pyfer.The two were admitted into practice on the same day, 32 years ago.
“He’s not intimidated by the big Philly, New York or D.C. firms,”Ward continues, “offices that have backup resources that far exceed our small town, Lancaster, USA. There’s nothing that’s going to scare him away.”
Ward is right. Pyfer doesn’t scare easily.And to qualify the boast, a potential client, or opposing counsel, can spare the quarter — Pyfer’s accomplishments aren’t buried on page B-12.The guy makes headlines.
The story that spread around the globe, the real-life drama that best illuminated the medals of this Distinguished Eagle Scout, the case that shook the foundation of these green fields is undoubtedly the trial of the cocaine-dealing young Amish men, and the serenity-challenged Pagan motorcycle gang.
Despite the richness and beauty of the Lancaster Amish farmland, soil can only spread so far. And with the growing population within their community in the early 1990s, young Amish men, many at the time of their faith’s rumspringa practice, were forced to look for work among the “English” world outside their own. For future Pyfer client Abner Stoltzfus, 24 at the time, and Abner King Stoltzfus, 23 (no relation), this meant working as roofers.
And while the lessons of their rumspringa included wine, women and wild hoe-down parties, there was no compass within this wing-spreading time in their lives to direct the young men through the powers of cocaine.That was left to their coworkers — members of the Philadelphiabased Pagans, grisly bikers whose version of “cutting a line” had nothing to do with barn dances.
Before being sniffed out by authorities in 1997, the Amish men and the Pagans had dealt more than $1 million of both cocaine and methamphetamine at their local hoedowns. The bizarre bedfellows of the Amish and the Pagans soon made international news. And it would forever cement the legacy of hometown attorney Pyfer.
“In Lancaster, we don’t consider the Amish different,” Pyfer reflects on the case. “These are our neighbors.These are people we grew up with.
“I remember when [Abner King Stoltzfus] came into my office,” Pyfer continues. “My immediate reaction was, ‘These kids are really no different than any other “English” teenager going through a period of time when there’s lots of temptation.’”
Pyfer was quick to recognize the Amish naïveté concerning the severity of narcotics, both culturally and legally.
“I also thought, ‘My daughter knew more in the fifth grade about drugs than Abner Stoltzfus did at age 19.’”
And while the nation’s presses turned, pumping out headlines like “Horse and Druggies” and “Bikes and Buggies,” Pyfer prepared his client and planned his strategy, employing his comfort with the Amish to further both their community and his case.
“I can remember sitting with the two FBI agents and Abner in my office,” Pyfer recalls, “and they explained to him that they wanted him to wear a wire under his hat. He had no semblance of the danger he was putting himself in. I didn’t sleep the entire weekend.”
Pyfer wasn’t alone in his sleeplessness. Within the community of over 20,000 Old Order Amish, unrest hoed through fields of concern over what would be the fate of the two Abners.
“We knew these kids were facing life imprisonment, and we knew that they had cooperated,” Pyfer explains. “We also knew very well that prison wasn’t where we wanted these people to go because they would’ve been eaten alive.… So what I said to them was, ‘It’s obvious that you got involved here because you didn’t have any preparation, and I think it’s remarkable you got off a cocaine addiction without any type of counseling.’ But I also said that it might be well if we’d have what I called ‘drug awareness meetings.’ I told them it would be nice if they went out and told other Amish youth about what happened to them.”
Proceeding cautiously, Pyfer and one of the FBI agents approached the trustees of the Amish community, a group of nine or ten elderly men who were ultimately unable to grasp the threat drugs posed among their youth. However, the young marrieds within the Amish were able to recognize the dangers among their lot, and by their urging, an initial meeting took place.Two hundred Amish youth, some by buggy, others in SUVs, showed up. All came via word of mouth.
“The FBI agent and I were very afraid if we ended up making some kind of public statement, the newspapers would show up,” Pyfer speaks of gaining the community’s trust. “And we knew very well that would be the worst way in the world to impress the importance of it, should we have any type of publicity there.”
The day following the meeting in which Pyfer, his client and the FBI spoke of the real dangers and potential consequences facing the community, Pyfer was contacted about holding another gathering. Soon after, he was approached about conducting another. And then, another after that.
All told, Pyfer and the other speakers would eventually conduct 11 such awareness meetings before his client went to trial. Every Amish congregation in eastern Pennsylvania would be represented, and 12,000 sets of ears would hear about the law, the lure and the lessons of drug abuse.
“They were like church revival meetings,” Pyfer remembers. “Women on one side, men on the other.The trustees even came.They started with a hymn.Then they’d turn it over to us.”
And by the time it was turned over to a federal judge in Philadelphia in June of ’99, the Honorable Clarence C. Newcomer, so impressed by the numbers that attended the meetings (which resulted in a 40 percent fall in drug use among the Amish), handed down a ruling, for both Abners, of one year at a halfway house. Over 300 Amish men and women, traveling in vans, followed Pyfer into the city to hear the decision.
“I came away with a tremendous sense of satisfaction,” Pyfer says of the process. “The system had really worked.”
But despite the leviathan legal victory, Pyfer, beholding the same vision that earned this triumph, is quick to note that in order to grow, a crop needs consistent watering.
“Sadly, there has not been a meeting since the guys entered their pleas and got out of jail,” Pyfer comments. “I don’t think they want outsiders.The Powers That Be think the problem has been solved, and it hasn’t. … I would not be surprised if the drug rate is probably back to where it was before. I think there’ll be another bust, and I don’t believe there will be any type of leniency shown.”
For Pyfer, it is these beliefs and this type of intellect that shows his firm footing within the soil that is his home.And when not found working in the courtroom or with the Scouts (he and his wife were the adult representatives for the organization’s 2002 Report to the Nation at the White House), Pyfer keeps himself grounded in his 10 greenhouses, where he fathers more than 6,000 orchids.
“It’s like my psychiatrist,” he says of the flower that he feels symbolizes perfection. “I’ll go into my greenhouses on a Saturday morning and begin potting at 8 a.m. It’s not uncommon for my wife to call me at 5:30, and I haven’t even taken a break.”
“It’s the challenge of growing them that attracts John. He’s a great rescuer,” says Pyfer friend and fellow orchid grower Gary Hawbaker, whose words echo the parallels between Pyfer’s handling of clients and his tropical orchids.
“He’ll go somewhere that will have plants discounted to almost nothing because they’re in awful shape,” Hawbaker concludes. “And he’ll revive them.”
And yet, with all that Pyfer lends of himself, he also gives back. He is that unique individual who, with his mind, his heart and his hands, works ceaselessly to better his community and beautify his land.