Joseph Anthony Matera, an attorney who expanded Maryland Legal Aid when he headed the agency, died of an infection Saturday at Pacifica Senior Living Skilled Nursing Facility in Oakland, Calif. The former Hunting Ridge resident was 83.
Born in White Plains, N.Y., he was the son of Annibale Matera, who ran a junkyard, and Lucia Matera. As a young man, he assisted his father in his work.
Mr. Matera met his future wife, Elizabeth "Betty" Anne Williams, a Baltimore-born University of Maryland student nurse, while he was a Johns Hopkins University student. They introduced themselves at a lecture and dance at the Newman Club, a Roman Catholic organization on North Charles Street near the school's Homewood campus.
He earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Hopkins in 1953. Mr. Matera then joined the Marine Corps and served in Korea. He left military service as a lieutenant.
The couple married in August 1955, and he studied physical therapy at Columbia University. He later became chief of physical therapy at Fort Howard in eastern Baltimore County. He studied law in the evening and was a 1961 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law. He was a clerk to state Court of Appeals Judge C. Ferdinand Sybert Sr. He also worked in the law office of longtime Baltimore Comptroller Hyman A. Pressman. Mr. Pressman wrote a lengthy poem dedicated to Mr. Matera when he left the firm.
He joined what was then the Legal Aid Bureau and went on to became its executive director. Family members said Mr. Matera oversaw its growth from a fairly small agency with a $64,000 annual budget and six lawyers. Mr. Matera soon changed its size and outreach to a budget of $800,000 and 34 attorneys.
"Joe was an extraordinary leader for the Legal Aid Bureau," said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and colleague. "He was one of the most important lawyers in legal services in Maryland in the last 50 years. He had tremendous courage. He was a strong defender of the legal rights of the poor."
Mr. Millemann, who worked with Mr. Matera at the Legal Aid Bureau, said he took the office from a small, privately funded operation to what he called a "major organization with big federal funding."
In the process, Mr. Matera also increased the aggressiveness of the bureau.
"The Legal Aid program is reaching beyond its usual role of simply defending poor people in routine court cases to actually challenging laws considered restrictive to the poor," said a 1967 Evening Sun article about his work with the bureau.
The news article said that Mr. Matera led an effort "to confront agencies serving the poor." The article described how he helped the poor with benefits and would "take a seller to court if he has taken illegal advantage" of a poor person.
He was named the Legal Aid Bureau's executive director in 1969. That day, he launched an effort to challenge the requirement that the poor must pay court costs in divorce cases and for other civil actions.
"The indigent are believed to be deterred from seeking divorce and other legal remedies for their problems because of the expense of court costs and publication fees," said a 1969 Sun article.
The same article also said that "Mr. Matera's stress on aggressive challenges of laws and regulations of governmental agencies has angered some of the more conservative [Legal Aid] board members and attorneys."
In 1971, he began placing advertisements to inform poor clients of his office's services. He fought to have 16- and 17-year-olds treated as juveniles, not adults, in Baltimore courts. He also increased the number of Legal Aid offices.
"Joe was a courageous man," said Christopher Brown, an attorney and University of Maryland School of Law professor emeritus. "He expanded legal services in Baltimore when the local practitioners were afraid he'd take their business. He was also a fine administrator. He gave people leeway. He brought lawyers to Baltimore by putting together one of the best legal programs in the country."
Mr. Matera left the Legal Aid Bureau directorship in 1974. Family members said he was succeeded by Charles H. Dorsey, a close friend and law school classmate.
Mr. Matera went on to become a federal hearing examiner and administrative law judge. He retired in the early 1990s and lived in Oakland, Calif. He enjoyed meals in San Francisco's Chinatown and attended concerts of the San Francisco Symphony.
"He shared in the joys and the challenges of his fairly large family. This was his major pastime," said a son, Christopher Matera of Kingston, Tenn.
Services are private.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of nearly 60 years; three other sons, Joseph Steven Matera of Albany, Calif., Michael Matera of Washington, D.C., and Richard Matera of South Lake Tahoe, Calif.; two daughters, Anne Howland of Moraga, Calif., and Frances Matera of Martinez, Calif.; and eight grandchildren. A son, Dr. Gregory Matera, died in 2013.