John Kozyak: Chairman, National Parkinson Foundation


The National Parkinson Foundation's Chairman of the Board, John Kozyak, was profiled in the Executive South Florida Magazine.

When the proposition first arose, prominent Coral Gables attorney John Kozyak was uncertain that he wanted to become the chairman of the National Parkinson Foundation (NPF).

He had served as managing partner of the Miami area law firm he co-founded, Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, advised large companies, served as the lead lawyer for damage claimants in a national asbestos case, and served as trustee and criminal restitution receiver in a viatical fraud Ponzi scheme case.

But taking the helm of a national non-profit organization with fundraising, research, and education goals loomed as a task outside his longtime experience in the legal profession.

“It’s a totally different set of skills,” he said. “It’s a totally different thing when you have a board of directors and a CEO.”

Yet, as with many other loyal foundation supporters, there are deep personal reasons for becoming more involved. Kozyak, who previously served as a member of the foundation’s executive committee, has two good reasons. Both of his parents developed the disease and have benefitted from the services created over the years by the Foundation, which was formed in Miami in 1957.

“You kind of have two choices,” he said. “You can ignore it or you can say, I want to make a difference.’”

His predecessor in the post, Dr. Bernard Fogel, said Kozyak was “very leery of taking this responsibility.”

“He wanted to get into it and do it right,” said Fogel. “Since he’s taken over I’m very impressed with his energy level, his commitment. I think he’s going to help make the Foundation much more successful.”

In taking the position, which he started in January 2014, Kozyak has carved out time from an agenda that’s already brimming with obligations. He still works select cases and oversees his Kozyak Minority Mentoring Picnic in Miami which is again on the calendar for November. Developed out of Kozyak’s desire to see the expansion of diversity in the South Florida legal profession, the daylong event has grown to attract more than 4,000 students, lawyers, judges, and others who are dedicated to ensuring that minority law students are well prepared to succeed in the legal community.

More immediately ahead is the NPF’s annual national Moving Day fundraiser, which will again occur in South Florida at Miami’s Bayfront Park on October 5, 2014. Janet Reno, the former US Attorney General in the Clinton Administration and a former Miami- Dade State Attorney, has again agreed to serve as the honorary chair. Reno was diagnosed with the disease in the 1990s.

“He’s coming at precisely the right time,” said Fogel. “First of all the organization is really more of a superior organization than it has ever been before. It was really more of a local organization that had capable people but not strong professionals.”

Now, he said, the Foundation does have a team of real professionals, thanks to the efforts of Joyce Oberdorf, the president and CEO since 2008.

Parkinson’s, according to Foundation literature, “is caused by the deterioration of neurons in the brain that produce dopamine, an essential neurotransmitter that controls smooth, coordinated muscle function.” When a majority of those cells are damaged, symptoms start to appear. They include slowness of movement, shaking or tremors while at rest, stiffness or rigidity in the limbs or trunk, and difficulties with balance. The prevailing medical community conclusion is that the disease is genetically based, though environmental factors such as exposure to insecticides and other toxins are believed to serve as triggers.

There is no cure.

“Our mission is to try to make sure that people who have Parkinson’s have the best possible life they can,” said Kozyak.

The Foundation estimates that there are 35,000 patients with Parkinson’s in Miami- Dade and Broward counties. It has funded more than $180 million in research and support services to make life easier for people with Parkinson’s. It maintains 39 Centers of Excellence around the country and elsewhere to assist more than 50,000 patients. Worldwide, the organization estimates that four to six million people suffer from the disease, which is the 14th leading cause of death in the US, where roughly a million people suffer from Parkinson’s.

Patients aren’t the only ones in need. Caregivers, including family members, often bear the brunt of riding to the rescue, whether it’s providing transportation for those patients who can’t drive, assisting with shopping or housework, helping with therapy, or just plain listening.

That’s a key reason why the Foundation has invested in local resources and services such as support groups and exercise and wellness classes. A national helpline (800.473.4636) helps patients and family members daily.

While making public pitches for the Foundation, Kozyak tells audiences that speech therapy helped his mother regain the ability to enjoy a longtime pleasure: whistling.

“She loved to whistle,” he said. “Now, she’s resumed.”

— David Lyons
©Executive South Florida Magazine