The journey of Judge Joan Lefkow

Finally, in 1975, Joan Humphrey and Michael Lefkow married, in a green wooden Episcopal church in the Colorado mountains. Michael wore a white Moroccan wedding shirt he'd brought back from Spain. Joan wore a white Moroccan caftan. They embarked on a life anchored by children, church and their shared zeal for the law.

Right after college, while she and Michael were still just dating, Joan had gone to work at an urban planning firm, ignoring the college career test that suggested law would suit her.

"There were no women in law," she says, "and I had no money."

But she was intrigued by Michael's job as a Legal Aid lawyer who helped the poor. One day, she said to him sheepishly, "Maybe I'll go to law school."

She was thinking Northwestern, but knew that if he balked, she wouldn't apply.

He said, "I think you'd make a very fine lawyer."

She said, "Really?"

If in the years that followed he ever minded that her career outshone his, he didn't let it show.


The last time Joan Lefkow saw her husband alive, on the morning of Feb. 28, he told her he wanted to use their 1998 Windstar mini-van that day instead of the 1992 Ford Tempo. He was staying home after surgery on an Achilles' tendon he injured playing tennis, and he wanted to drive to nearby Cafe Boost. She'd already loaded her work things into the mini-van. Wouldn't the Tempo suffice to get him to his morning coffee?

She was annoyed and he was annoyed, but they'd kissed goodbye as usual and he watched her from the doorway as she drove off in the van.

After that day, Lefkow would rarely cry in front of other people. Joan, her friends would say, was shouldering through as if grieving were just another job. Even at her husband's funeral she comforted weeping mourners more than she wept.

"I think she cries at night," one of her daughters said a few weeks later.

But on a day two months after Michael's death, Joan Lefkow goes to his office, looks around--at the swamp of papers, the poster of Spain, the family photos, the diplomas--and she weeps.

Michael Lefkow's little law office in the Monadnock Building in the Loop was nothing like his wife's suite in the federal courthouse catercorner across West Jackson Boulevard.

Hers: vistas of the lake and skyline, walls of polished bookshelves, Arts and Crafts lamps and chairs, a staff to take her calls, send her faxes, make the coffee.

His: a single room with an air conditioner in the window, a room barely big enough for his old walnut desk, bought used. His only staff was his daughter Helena, whom he'd hired as a temp and who affectionately despaired that her dad couldn't even make a computer file.

While his wife, with his proud encouragement, ascended the federal judges' ranks, Michael Lefkow had run for Cook County judge. He lost. But he didn't lose his vigor for his private practice. He was an old-style liberal who specialized in employment rights, and it energized his conscience that his clients were often broke.

In his office when he died:

Two 10-pound weights underneath the desk.