The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 10 (1997-98)

Alfred E. Woodward - A Life in the Law
By Honorable S. Louis Rathje

On December 4, 1994, another chapter in the long career of judge and attorney Alfred E. Woodward came to a close. On that day, Judge Woodward retired, for the second time, from the Second District, Appellate Court, where he had served since 1986. Few legal practitioners or judges have enjoyed careers spanning, not only the length of his career, but also experiencing the changes in the law that Judge Woodward experienced as an attorney, circuit court judge and appellate court justice. Even fewer can lay claim to the reputation for honesty, integrity, and legal expertise enjoyed by Judge Woodward. Yet, given his reticence to talk about himself, few persons are aware of the details of this remarkable man and his career as a lawyer and jurist. This article will, hopefully, acquaint you with the man, as well as with his reputation.

I. The Ham From Sandwich

Alfred E. Woodward was born in Sandwich, Illinois, on December 15, 1913, the youngest of three boys. Malcolm, the eldest, was 19 years older, and John, the middle brother, was 11 years older. Needless to say, Alfred grew up as an "only child." His father was Alfred E. Woodward, Sr., and his mother was the former Mabel Coleman. At the time he was born, Sandwich was a town of about 2,500 people, most of whom were farmers or worked in the local manufacturing company. Alfred’s father was employed by the Sandwich Manufacturing Company.

Growing up, Alfred participated in sports, such as football, basketball, and he also took up golf around the age of 11 or 12. In high school, he played football, starting as a halfback and later as an end. In his senior year, he was the quarterback. He was also on the debating team. His recollection of one particular subject was "who was the greater man, Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton?" Taking the side of Hamilton, sometimes successfully, obviously prepared the future litigator for his chosen profession.

By the time Alfred was ready to attend college, the great Depression had struck. Although originally his plans were to attend Northwestern, where his older brothers had attended, Alfred attended Oberlin College in Ohio on an athletic scholarship. In order to pay for his expenses, he worked in the kitchen, washing pots and pans, until he was promoted to waiting tables. At Oberlin, he majored in political science and played football. By his senior year, he was captain of the football team. Eventually, Alfred would be named to the Heisman Club, Oberlin’s "Hall of Fame." His college nickname, "The Ham from Sandwich" is the first recorded acknowledgment of his special brand of "dry" humor.

II. Law School

By high school, Alfred had determined that he wanted to be a lawyer. With the encouragement of his father and the example of his brother, John, at that time a practicing attorney, following his graduation from Oberlin in 1935, he enrolled at Northwestern University School of Law. For his first year, he rented a room from a generous Chicago woman for the princely sum of $5 per week. He later rented an apartment with three other law students near the law school on Rush Street.

Being in law school during the late 1930s was a heady experience. Most of Alfred’s professors believed in the "old" constitutional law and did not approve of the new kinds of legislation being passed under President Roosevelt’s administration as part of the New Deal. Although Dean Wigmore was retired, he was still a "presence" at the law school. Among Alfred’s classmates was the future Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon. Alfred described his former classmate as always the first to volunteer in class. It would come as no surprise to his colleagues that Alfred’s favorite law school subject was torts, particularly the area of proximate cause.

III. Early Years in Practice

Alfred graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 1938. Fortunately, he had a job waiting for him in a law firm in Wheaton, Illinois, which his brother, John, had recently formed with another attorney, Bert Rathje. The firm handled general practice At that time, Du Page County did not have a resident circuit judge. An Eighteenth Circuit Judge from another county would hear cases in Du Page County two or three days a week. There was also a county judge and a probate judge elected from Du Page County.

Alfred got most of his early experience appearing before justices of the peace or "J.P.’s," as they were called. J.P.’s heard civil cases where the amount claimed was less than $1,000. Rathje and Woodward represented insurance companies, and Alfred gained his early trial experience in the J.P. courts or by an appeal to the circuit court.

It was also in front of a J.P. that Alfred tried his first criminal case, a woman charged with adultery. When asked the outcome of the case, he replied that he had won, but then added, modestly, that the other side did not have a very good case.

According to Alfred, when he began practicing in 1938, the Du Page County Bar Association was a very loosely organized association. He did recall that, in either 1939 or 1940, the Bar Association held a social night at the Baker Hotel in St. Charles. It was attended by about 15 to 20 members and their spouses. Practicing law was quite different then, because, unlike today, you were generally acquainted with the lawyers on the other side of the case. In those days, a lawyer’s word was his bond. While Alfred admitted that not all lawyers abided by that code, he refused to name any names.

III. The Lawyer Goes to War

In 1943, Alfred joined the Navy as an Ensign and served in the South Pacific as a communications officer. He spent the war on several small islands named Abemama and Tiniau and became a Lieutenant J.G. in 1945. While on Tiniau, he recalled being relieved from duty one morning and being told that the "big ones were out there today," meaning that the planes destined for Japan with the atomic bombs. Although he had an opportunity to travel to Japan to participate in the surrender, he opted for home and family, which now included his son, Robert, born in 1943, whom he had not yet seen.

Discharged from the service in January 1946, he returned to Wheaton and the practice of law.

IV. Post-War Wheaton

Alfred returned to a Du Page County that had not changed very significantly during the war. But change was in the wind, fueled by the return of millions of veterans like him. The big business right after the war was tax foreclosures. He has explained that many of the county’s towns had been platted in the 1920s and 1930s. Due to the Depression and the War, many of the properties’ owners had failed to pay property taxes. Alfred represented McIntosh Realty in numerous foreclosures. He also recognized the importance of the coming boom in suburban land development, devoting a significant portion of his practice to zoning law. In fact, he is very proud of a number of zoning cases in which he was involved, citing them among the brightest achievements of his career. "I had a lot of Hinsdale and Oak Brook cases during the latter part of the 1950s and the 1960s," he stated. "These were active suburban areas where people wanted to get going, and I recall representing, let’s say, people with various angles." At one time, he represented certain members of the Butler family, that owned parts of Oak Brook.

In 1950, Alfred became a partner in the Wheaton law firm of Rathje and Woodward. At that time, there were still no circuit judges in the Eighteenth Circuit who resided in Du Page County. Within a few years, his mentor of many years, Bert Rathje, became the county’s probate judge. Of Judge Rathje, he had this to say. "Let’s say the greatest example to me was that he could get along with people. He could convince the clients what they ought to do, and he did it very well and simply. His clients liked his advice and had total confidence in it."

Judge Woodward served as President of the Du Page County Bar Association in 1956. He estimated that the Bar Association then had approximately 75 members at that time. Previously, the meetings had been held in the county court house. By 1956, the Bar met at the Chicago Title and Trust building in Wheaton and, on various occasions, at the Tally Ho restaurant on North Avenue. There were monthly luncheon meetings, as well as four general membership dinner meetings. The Bar also sponsored an annual golf outing. When asked what about attendance at the meetings, Judge Woodward replied, "Well, lawyers only came to the meetings when it was convenient to them. Not many showed up."

On the civil side of his practice, Judge Woodward was involved in one of the County’s most memorable legal battles. In a Structural Work Act case, the plaintiff, who had fallen off a ladder, was represented by James Dooley, one of Chicago’s most feared personal injury attorneys, who would later become a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. Judge Woodward represented one of the defendants and Roy Peregrine represented the other defendant. They offered Dooley a settlement of $30,000 right before trial, but he refused the offer. Judge Woodward explained, "[Dooley] was expensive. He sought big figures, and he had always gotten them." The jury found for the defendants, but, on appeal, the case was reversed and remanded. Right before the second trial commenced, defense counsel once gain made an offer of settlement to which Dooley again said no. Roy Peregrine handled most of the defense in the retrial. Once again, the jury found for the defendants. Judge Woodward remarked, "This was one case in which [Dooley] failed."

Never one to shy away from the criminal side of a law practice, Alfred became involved in a number of epic legal struggles with a young assistant State’s Attorney, William Bauer, whose own extraordinary career eventually lead to a distinguished judgeship on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Bauer recalled an aggravated battery case in which Judge Woodward was opposing counsel. Using terms to describe the defendant such as a "good American boy", Alfred Woodward managed to exasperate his opponent, who said in his opening statement: "The way Mr. Woodward has described the defendant, you would think he is Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy. If you believe that, it’s time to head out of town."

In describing the Woodward litigation style, Judge Bauer marveled, "He could always get a jury to worry themselves to death about the defendant [Judge Woodward] could handle anything. He knew people. He liked people, and they liked him back. There was no way you could attack him. He could destroy an opponent in a very kind way." Judge Bauer then paid his "nemesis" the ultimate compliment, "I learned a lot about the law from him."

According to Judge Bauer, despite Judge Woodward’s quiet demeanor, he could also make an occasional display of emotion, which often brought results. During a criminal trial, a judge was dozing quietly on the bench. Emphasizing his point, Alfred slammed his hand on the table. The somnolent judge shot to attention.

Of all the varied cases in which he was involved, Judge Woodward is proudest of two murder cases in which he served as defense counsel. In the early 1960’s, he represented a woman charged with murdering her husband’s girlfriend. The defendant’s husband had been seeing another woman. On the day in question, the defendant decided that she would take matters into her own hands. Taking along a shotgun, she drove to the victim’s apartment, and, rather than opening the screen door, went through it, knocking the door off its hinges. The defendant confronted the victim, who was in the bathtub. Without uttering a word, the defendant fired the shotgun into the victim’s chest, killing her instantly.

Judge Woodward explained his defense strategy thusly: "Our strategy in trying criminal cases such as this type was to attempt to put the key witness on trial, not the defendant. In this case, we had the cooperation of the defendant’s husband, who was a key prosecution witness. He admitted most of the things that went on with the victim. It was my theory to try him and make the jury feel sorry for my client." The defendant’s three children were prominently positioned behind the defense table. Were they there at Judge Woodward’s request? "I don’t know," the Judge said with a sly smile, "let’s just say it was my desire."

His strategy worked, as the jury returned a not guilty verdict in less than two hours. When asked how the prosecuting attorney reacted to the verdict, he replied, "I don’t know, maybe he sympathized with my client, too."

In the second murder case, Judge Woodward again represented a woman charged with murder. This time the victim was the husband, rather than the girlfriend. The victim came home late one night; the defendant let him in, and she followed him into the bathroom. Rather than using the rolling pin, the defendant put a pistol up to the victim’s forehead and pulled the trigger, killing him instantly.

Between these two murder trials, the law had changed as to what the defendant had to prove in an insanity defense. Temporary insanity was no longer a defense. As Judge Woodward explained, "You had to prove prior conduct that indicated insanity." Putting the defendant on the stand proved to be a greater adversity than he had hoped. "Let’s put it this way, my client was not a lady of great intelligence... It was frustrating to me to examine her, when she didn’t come up with the right answers."

The jury eventually told the trial judge that it could not reach a verdict, and it was discharged. Judge Woodward recalled, "A couple of days later, I went to see [then State’s Attorney] Bill Bauer, and Bill said, ‘You don’t want to try this case again, do you?’ I said I hoped he was right, and an agreement was worked out. I pleaded the defendant guilty to involuntary manslaughter because the arrangement I had for getting paid by the defendant was the payment of a $10,000 insurance policy on the victim’s life payable to the defendant. By pleading in that fashion, the insurance company could not say that she intentionally murdered her husband. So my client collected the insurance which, I thought, was a pretty good fee at that time... The defendant was sent to Elgin State Hospital for 18 months, and then she was released."

Another "war story" involving Judge Woodward and Judge Bauer occurred after the latter had been elected a circuit court judge. The plaintiff’s lawyer was well-known for his emotional arguments before the jury, in which, legend has it, he often shed a few tears over his client’s plight. In a proceeding prior to trial, Judge Woodward advised Judge Bauer, "If [plaintiff’s attorney] starts crying, I will ask for a mistrial." Judge Bauer quickly replied, "If he starts crying, I will grant the motion."

Judge Woodward’s great abilities as a litigator were noticed by his peers. In 1967, he was elected to the American College of Trial Lawyers.

V. The Woodward Family

As his reputation grew in the 1950s, so did his family, which was and is of primary importance to Judge Woodward. After his divorce from his first wife, he married the former Alice Keller in 1957. In so doing, they created a "yours and mine" family of six children, his three children, Bob, Anne, and Dave; and Alice’s three children, Sue, Mike, and Lynn. In a year, the family expanded to a "yours, mine, and ours" amalgamation with the birth of their daughter, Wendy.

His eldest son, Bob, a world-renowned author and currently an associate editor of the Washington Post, paid great attention to his father’s work habits. Bob recalled that, after the family meal, his father would regularly retire to the family den to complete the day’s work. On occasion, when going into the den to wish his father good night, he would find him asleep. Roused by his son, Alfred would then return to the business at hand. Bob recounted a situation in which his father’s lawyerly practicality came to the fore.

"When I was in grammar school, Dad would talk cases with me. I think he wanted me to become a lawyer. In one indiscreet moment, he disclosed to me how much he made, and that he charged his clients (now you’ll fall out of your chair when you hear this, this was the 1950s) $15 an hour. Big. And I thought, $15 an hour. That is the equivalent of what? I don’t know, $200, $300 an hour now. And I thought, that was a fortune. That would be a year’s allowance for me, so I said to him, this is great. I’ve got an idea. On Saturday morning, instead of [us doing the chores together], I said I’ll do that work. And you go to the office and you work two extra hours, and then come back and give me the $30. And he contemplated it, and I really pushed on it. I really beat him over the head that this was the greatest idea anyone ever had. I’d be rich, he’d be able to get his work done. You know what his argument was, why not to do it? Tax implications. Really! He said he could not pay me for work he did because I would then have to report it as income. It made absolutely no sense to me that he wouldn’t do it."

Speaking of Judge Woodward’s sage counsel, the author of this article is reminded of the time when I was a young lawyer in need of sound advice. I represented a woman in a divorce case, and I thought I had done a rather good job for her. I met with her after the divorce was concluded and reminded her that she had not paid me. She responded, "Well, is it possible that you could take it out in trade?" Completely flustered, I excused myself so that I could talk to Judge Woodward about the situation. After listening to my story, he said, "Tell her you’d like to accommodate her, but it would be unfair to the other partners."

VI. Here Comes The Judge

As Du Page County grew in population, so did the number of circuit court judgeships. By 1970, there were at least four circuit court positions in the Eighteenth Circuit, two of which were vacant. Judge Woodward realized that "it was pretty much now or never." At that time, the county’s 85 Republican precinct committeemen chose the party’s nominees for the circuit court. Thus, anyone seeking the nomination had to go through the cumbersome process of pleading his or her case to the precinct committeemen. Judge Woodward had a separate telephone line put into his home for the exclusive purpose of talking his way into the nomination, which he received in early 1970. This was the last year in which the precinct committeemen had such authority.

Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, Chief Judge Michael Galasso, fondly recalled Alfred’s demeanor on the bench, "He was polite to everyone," said Judge Galasso. "He dripped with kindness, even when sentencing a defendant. Even when you had just gotten your brains beaten in, with him as the trial judge, you felt you’d gotten a fair trial."

Judge Woodward attributed his impartial courtroom demeanor to a number of sources. First, he credited his mother with instilling in him a mannerly approach to dealing with others. He also recalled a number of judges whose courteous conduct impressed him. On the other hand, he experienced a certain number of judges whose courtroom behavior left quite a bit to be desired. Judge Woodward explained, "There is no reason for a judge to be brusque. After all, you are sitting there as the virtual ruler of that courtroom. You’d better know what you are doing and be fair about it."

Of the many civil and criminal cases he presided over in the circuit court, he best remembers—what else—a sensational murder trial involving—what else—a life insurance policy and, of course, marital disharmony. Judge Woodward described it thusly:

"It was an interesting case that took about two and one-half weeks to try. The courtroom was full every day. The husband and wife lived in Hinsdale, and they were clearly quite wealthy. Let’s say the defendant and her husband had reached the point where they were not getting along well. The defendant filed suit for divorce. At the marital home, the husband was shot in the head and killed about six or seven o’clock one night. The gun and the bullets were found at the scene in his bedroom; he had been in bed. The police never picked up any fingerprints but the victim’s on the gun. The State had these so-called forensic experts whose testimony tied the defendant to the murder weapon. That was pretty much the State’s case; there was no confession. The defendant was defended by a fairly famous criminal defense attorney from Chicago, who brought in some very famous forensic experts from California. It a was bitterly contested case. The result was not guilty. As a result, defendant came into about $250,000 of life insurance."

In another sensational case over which Judge Woodward presided, the key prosecution witness was asked to make an in-court identification of the defendant. To everyone’s surprise, the witness began carefully surveying the entire packed courtroom, intently gazing at a number of people. Eventually, the witness spotted and eventually identified the defendant. Later the judge was heard to quip, "For awhile there, I thought that witness was going to identify me."

In 1977, Judge Woodward was selected by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill a vacancy in the Second District, Appellate Court. This transition was made simpler by the fact that he had done quite a bit of appellate work while in private practice. Within months, he was preparing to run for the appellate court. His opponents were George Lindberg, now a Federal district judge in Chicago and an attorney from Lake County. "I started campaigning in November or December of 1977 for the March 1978 primary," he recalled. "But you see [Judge] Lindberg had all these political connections, having been the Comptroller of Illinois. Of course, another difficulty was that the Second Appellate district extended from the Mississippi River to the Cook County boundary, and I had practiced law in Du Page County and didn’t have any political connections in any of the other counties. Having no political friends in any of the counties, I went to the Republican party meetings and tried to impress people with my abilities and tried to make them aware of Judge Lindberg’s lack of judicial experience at that time. I went to all the counties and all the Republican meetings I could find. I was always given an ample opportunity to state my case, but a lot of the people were not bothering to listen to me."

Judge Woodward lost the election by about 3,000 or 4,000 votes. "I was deeply disappointed when I was defeated", he said. "But it was a great experience to go to the meetings, at which I didn’t know anyone, and yet get the chance to impress them with the fact that I would be a good appellate judge."

VII. Back to the Wars

Judge Woodward stayed on the appellate bench until January 1981, at which time, he chose to return to private practice with the law firm of Rathje, Woodward, Dyer & Burt. The reason for his resignation was very simple. "You could make more money practicing law than sitting on the appellate court." Getting back into private practice provided something of a shock. "I didn’t have any clients or any business, it was like opening up a new practice."

According to Judge Woodward, he encountered some major changes upon returning to private practice. These included the dramatic increase in the amount of divorce litigation and the increasing incivility among lawyers. Also, he noted the very significant increase in the amount of and duration of depositions, which played a relatively small role in his civil litigation of the 1950s and 60s.

In the midst of resuming his practice, Judge Woodward was named in 1982 as a Director of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. One of the board’s primary tasks was to review the decisions reached by the ARDC’s staff. "It was a difficult job," he said succinctly.

VIII. Back to the Bench

In 1986, the Supreme Court recalled Judge Woodward to the appellate bench, where he served with distinction until December 1994. He was immediately assigned to the five-member workers’ compensation appellate panel, recently established by the Supreme Court to relieve it of the increasingly burdensome number of such appeals. The panel consisted of one judge from each of the State’s five appellate districts. This judicial assignment, sometimes considered as one to be endured rather than enjoyed, was a favorite of Judge Woodward. He remarked, "The workers’ compensation panel was different, and I came into contact with different judges, who were nice and interesting people. It broadened my experience, and by that it was worthwhile."

Justice Robert D. McLaren served on the appellate bench with Judge Woodward from 1988 to 1994. "He was always a perfect gentleman," observed Judge McLaren. "He never once raised his voice, even in tense situations in which lesser men would have done so. Further, he was always a stabilizing force on the bench. As to his legal abilities, his powers of legal observation and his capacity to relate the facts of a case to the law were excellent."

IX. Retirement

Judge Alfred Woodward retired from the bench at 81 years of age. It was indeed the end of an era. Few, if any, Du Page County attorneys have ever had such a wide-ranging career and have done it so well.

He now travels quite a bit with his family. He also spends as much time as he can at his summer home on Lake Michigan in Pentwater, Michigan. The mere mention of Pentwater makes his eyes light up.

Of course, the real key to Judge Woodward’s retirement is his wife, Alice. As son Bob noted, "Alice moves him around and keeps him going."

In conclusion, the words of Judge Bauer perfectly summarize the man. "A great friend and a great lawyer, with great decency." Thanks Al.

Honorable S. Louis Rathje
is a Presiding Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court in the Second District. He received his Undergraduate Degree in 1961 from Wheaton College and his Law Degree in 1964 from Northwestern University.

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