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Life goes on, 8 years later

Chicago judge who endured family slayings honored with day care dedication at federal building

Mary Schmich

March 10, 2013

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Sometimes when a trial is over, a couple of jurors will approach Judge Joan Lefkow and make a sympathetic or admiring remark that lets her know that they know her story.

She figures they've Googled her and found it, though some may have been around Chicago long enough to remember.

"As the years go by, a lot of people aren't aware of it," she said Friday when I went to visit her in her chambers in the Dirksen Federal Building. "And that's OK."

At 69, Lefkow is slender and animated; her work with a personal trainer shows. Friday morning, in preparation for an afternoon ceremony in her honor, she was wearing jaunty red pumps with her blue dress, and she looked relaxed and happy. She pointed to a photo on a bookshelf.

"This is the love of my life," she said.

The love of her life is named Jack. He is 21 months old. He has his grandfather's eyebrows, the eyebrows of the grandfather he will never meet.

Lefkow still sees an occasional flash of the day she lost Jack's grandfather, her husband, Michael.

She no longer grieves the way she once did, she said. She was sitting in a rocking chair in the dim study behind her main office, near Jack's stroller.

"But it's still always there."

On Feb. 28, 2005, Joan Lefkow walked into her North Side home at dusk and found her husband and 89-year-old mother shot to death. The killer, who later killed himself, turned out to be a man who had appeared before her in court.

"The Lefkow murders," as they were called, became national news and then, like all news, faded from public view.

For the next seven years, Lefkow closed her chambers on Feb. 28, to take time to grieve and remember. This year, on the eighth anniversary, she kept working.

"I felt it's time,'" she said. "I don't mean to minimize it. It never, ever leaves us. But it's just part of who we are now."

When her husband died, the thing Joan Lefkow worried about most was how to bring her four daughters safely into adulthood.

"Even now," she said, "when one of them has a major issue, I think, 'I need Michael here to help me out.'"

But they've managed. Two are married and working. One is at Northwestern Law School, another in grad school at the University of Chicago.

Three of them came to Lefkow's apartment on this year's anniversary to eat takeout, tell stories and laugh some.

Lefkow lives in a high-rise with a doorman now. She likes the safety and the ease but still misses the vulnerable big old house where she raised a family then lost a husband and mother. Sometimes when she's driving along Foster Avenue, she glimpses the house in the distance and notices that the paint on one of the dormers is peeling.

"You have to let go of everything," she said. "I accept more and more that we don't have control."

She lets go of certain things, finds pleasure in others.

"When Jack came along," she said, "it was like a burst of spring."

She's been seeing a man lately, her first serious relationship in these eight years, someone she met when she officiated at a wedding.

"He likes to have fun and play," she said. "It's good for me to have fun."

She still has lunch with the marshal who ran her security detail after the murders. She likes knowing that because of what happened to her, federal marshals are now better trained and federal judges are better protected.

She doesn't go to church as much as she used to, but she went on Ash Wednesday and watched as her youngest daughter knelt to light candles for the dead. Her faith remains, loosely.

"I just feel God is here on Earth with us," she said, "in what we do or say, in how we treat others, how we accept adversity."

She still enjoys her work, and couple of hours before the ceremony in her honor, she put on her black judge's robe and went into her courtroom to hear a guilty plea. The man had stolen $500 from a bank and now faced years in prison.

She spoke to him carefully, respectfully, the way she speaks to everyone who stands before her.

On her way out, she stopped by a big old wooden desk that sits next to her high judge's bench. It had belonged to Michael.

She opened a drawer she hadn't opened since she moved it into the courtroom eight years ago, and she pulled out an ancient lottery ticket.

"I didn't know he played the lottery," she said.

She put it back and closed the drawer.

At 2 p.m., Lefkow rode the elevator to the second floor, where judges, lawyers, clerks, friends and her four daughters crowded into a room next to the cafeteria. Babies in cribs were rolled in. Jack was there.

When Lefkow went on senior status in September, which meant slightly reducing her workload, the chief judge, James Holderman, wanted to do something for her. He says she's beloved in the building.

The answer: Name the child care center after her.

The center had been Lefkow's idea, back when she was a young working mother. It opened in February 1989, against the judgment of some powers in the building. Her youngest daughter was among the first four babies.

"What I feel is my legacy, my heart," Lefkow said Friday, standing in front of the crowd, "is this little day care center."

Then she walked down the hallway for the unveiling of the sign.

Around the federal courthouse, what happened to Lefkow eight years ago is rarely mentioned. It wasn't mentioned Friday either, though the memory of what she has lived through was in the air when the white cover was peeled off a silver plaque that said:

The Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow Day Care Center.

She put her hand over her heart, and for the first time that day looked as if she might cry.

mschmich@tribune.com