Portrait of a Man
By Brooke Johnson
By Brooke Johnson
“Thank you for asking,” Edward Novak says, one hand tapping the corner of the table in the small conference room at Arizona School for the Arts, one hand idly wrapped around a plastic coffee cup. “You know you don’t have to? Arizona is a one party consent state in terms of recordings. Of course, the legality shifts if you’re recording someone over the phone who’s in a two party consent state, like California. Then you need to ask. But in Arizona? You don’t have to.” He’s referring to the moment about ten seconds earlier, when I asked if I could record our interview. Even as he speaks, my hand is hovering over the big red record button in my iPhone’s voice memos, but this information, casually but knowlegably given, stalls my fingers for the time being; I am perplexed by this newfound legal knowledge and intrigued by its giver. It is 7:20 on a Wednesday morning, and Ed Novak has already taught me something.
Novak resists generalization; he is not just a supporter of the arts, or a lawyer, or a businessman, or a veteran, but rather a conglomeration of experiences and interests. In addition to his work as ASA’s board president, Novak also, according to his biography on his law firm’s website, serves on the board of a veterans advocacy center and the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), the Arizona Supreme Court Committee on Character and Fitness, and, every Tuesday evening, takes piano lessons. He laughs when he mentions this, casually attributing it to the influence of his wife and twin daughters, Claire and Riley, both of whom are freshman at ASA; he is “the only non-musical person” in his family, so to remedy this, he leaves his job as a civil litigator and white collar crime attorney and heads uptown to indulge his inner Beethoven. Novak mentions this offhandedly, as if he is unaware of how it helps me shade in the picture of the man sitting before me; he is not one hue (very few of us are) but instead a collection of many, spread across the color spectrum like some sort of personality ROYGBIV.
In 2018, Edward Novak’s impact is large and diverse, and the community within which he operates is much the same; during his childhood, however, this was not always the case. Mr. Novak taps gently on the table to accentuate his point while he tells me, after explaining that he feels he is better off knowing people from different communities than not knowing them, that he “did not have a conversation with an African-American person until college.” He attributes this to the nature of his small Chicago suburb, which he describes as all white, with perhaps one or two Jewish families. Despite the homogeneity of the community, none of its members could predict Novak’s future except one; he tells me, with the familiarity of an oft-told joke, that “the only person who knew I was going to be a lawyer was the man who cut my hair from age three onward!” There’s no explanation for why the barber could see something that Novak’s mother, who wanted him to be a doctor, could not, but perhaps that’s not what matters; regardless of its owner, the prediction itself rang true: since his return from his overseas military service in Vietnam and first day at DePaul University’s law school, Edward Novak has been a student and guardian of the law. His primary focus is white collar crime - defined as financially motivated nonviolent crime committed by business and government professionals, although he will take on civil litigation cases when he finds them interesting enough; in his opinion, “Civil litigation deals with people’s money, whereas white collar crime deals with people’s liberty. To me, that’s more interesting.” His career began when he moved to Arizona in the late 80s in order to better suit his wife’s allergies; he started a two person law firm, which focused on white collar crime and brought cases before the Arizona Supreme Court. After moving law firms, Novak also pursued a position on the board of the Arizona Bar Association, beginning as Treasury Secretary and “chair hopping”, as he called it, until he was appointed President.
Throughout his career and life, Novak has shown a desire to learn from the experiences of those with different identities than his own; to him, he is “better off knowing you than not knowing you.” He finds listening to be the most rewarding and effective strategy in growth; he says, with a half secretive, half self-deprecating smile, “Adults are like slot-dolls; put in a quarter, get advice. Everyone wants to feel like they have something to give to young generations.” Novak, however, believes that it’s his responsibility to learn from those generations, and strives to engage with students by listening to them. His work within the community shows that desire to improve the lives of others by becoming aware of their true conditions; he describes himself as financially conservative (“I believe in spending money wisely”) but socially liberal in that he supports social programs, and in fact helps enable them; his veterans advocacy board serves 150 homeless veterans and is currently negotiating for a nine acre property to continue to provide housing for the 400 remaining homeless veterans in the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan area. He strives to improve his community by working with GPEC to draw businesses to Phoenix, which he feels will help improve many things about the city and the state of Arizona, including education. When asked which of his activities he finds the most rewarding, he stares off into the distance for a moment, perhaps back into some unknowable past, and remarks that “I learned the most about people in the army, but I wouldn’t say that was rewarding.”
If activities were colors, Ed Novak would be a man of many shades, and he has left an undeniable swatch of brightness across our city in his many efforts to improve the Phoenix community. When I ask him what his goals going forward are, though, Novak responds simply “To be a good father, a good husband, and a listening post for my girls.” One of those girls, his daughter Riley, told me that while Novak has an “incredible amount of self discipline and dedication,” he “always puts his job as a father before anything else, and he will always be the first person to comfort, encourage, and support you.” As I spoke to Novak, I saw the dedication she mentioned; it was a common thread throughout his story, from the year he worked to save money for law school to the quip he threw in about the Ulysses S. Grant biography he read recently. Throughout our interaction, Novak is at ease but professional; he is never stumped or unsure by my questions, and that surety reflects outward. Novak knows what’s important to him; it’s the reason he takes those piano lessons, the reason he invests so much in the community around him, the reason he chooses to expend his time and energy attempting to create the kind of city he knows ours can become. For him, it is not a question of if, but only a matter of how and when.