Gwendolyn Johnson talked about her children, jobs, even her thoughts on President Bush when she met with law school student Jackie A. Olexy. The Carlisle resident wasn't looking for legal tips from Olexy, a first-year student at The Dickinson School of Law. Olexy was preparing Johnson's income tax return as part of Dickinson's free tax clinic.
Each year, hundreds of Carlisle residents rely on students from the law school for a myriad services otherwise unavailable to them - - at least not without a cost.
From free legal advice to its own Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, the law school has played a vital role in the Carlisle community for 170 years.
"I couldn't do it myself, and I just can't afford to pay $300 to H&R Block," Johnson said of her tax return.
But Carlisle residents could eventually be forced to look elsewhere for these services.
Dickinson Dean Philip McConnaughay in November proposed moving the school to State College, near parent institution Penn State University, which has offered to build the law school a $60 million facility.
If the school relocates, it would leave behind a void, many residents say.
"It would just be a sad loss for us," said Ann Cook, a Carlisle High School teacher. "They're so community-minded. As a citizen, I would be devastated."
Law professor Gary Gildin coaches Cook's students for regional Mock Trial contests.
"Not only does Gary help us, we use the law school to practice, which gives the kids a real feeling of professionalism," Cook said.
Carlisle High School senior Margaret Bounds, who competes as a defense lawyer, bemoaned the idea of losing the legal laboratory.
"There's a judge's bench and a witness box in the classroom we practice in," she said.
"When we're running through the case, it actually feels like a courtroom."
And Val Vidal, a cook at the Carlisle Salvation Army kitchen, says he would miss an extraordinary volunteer work force.
Vidal works closely with law students who help prepare and serve food at the Dickinson Soup Kitchen Club.
?They're probably one of the better workers. They come in and go right to work. They're always real cheerful. A lot of times they'll eat with the people who come in,?? Vidal said.
The decision to relocate the law school rests with Dickinson's board of governors, which consists of 35 law school graduates, including federal Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former state Attorney General LeRoy Zimmerman.
Board members are also considering keeping Dickinson in Carlisle and renovating the school or building a new one.
The law school is not affiliated with Dickinson College.
This week, a Cumberland County judge ordered the board of governors to open its meetings to the media and public.
The Patriot-News and The Sentinel of Carlisle had sued to challenge the board's closed-meeting policy.
For now, the community and the law students contemplate their common future.
Third-year Dickinson student Liz Syer said personal relationships are easier to develop in Carlisle's small setting. Besides, she said, Penn State's main campus, which has 42,000 students already, has plenty of community volunteers.
Carlisle, Syer said, needs the school more than State College.
"The students are split," she said. "I don't want the school to move."
ELIZABETH GIBSON: 249-2006 or email@example.com INFOBOX: COMMUNITY PROGRAMS
Among the services The Dickinson School of Law offers to Carlisle:
* THE FAMILY LAW CLINIC IN THE DALE F. SHUGHART COMMUNITY LAW CENTER downtown offers Cumberland County residents free legal help with divorce and other domestic matters.
* MILLER CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEREST ADVOCACY pairs students with local lawyers for pro bono work and other public assistance.
* PROJECT STAFF, or Students Taking Action For the Future, is devoted to charity and community service through such programs as the law school's chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters.
* AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL AND ANIMAL LEGAL DEFENSE FUND. Dickinson hosts local chapters of these and other national organizations.
* VOLUNTEER INCOME TAX ASSISTANCE AND COUNSELING FOR THE ELDERLY program has been held in the school each winter for 25 years.
* COMMENCEMENT, LECTURES AND OTHER EVENTS have brought to town U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, among many others.
* SCHOOL FACULTY HAVE TAKEN PIVOTAL ROLES in local and state organizations: Professor Victor Romero served as the inaugural president of the Carlisle Area Branch of the NAACP and Professor Gary Gildin is vice president of the state American Civil Liberties Union and president of the ACLU's South Central Chapter.
* STUDENTS LEAD A COMMUNITY VOTER-REGISTRATION DRIVE and raise money for cancer research.
PHOTO; DAN GLEITER; Caption: Third-year Dickinson School of Law student Carolyn Fenton helps Scott McClintock of Shermans Dale prepare his tax return at the school's income tax clinic.