When he had a case on trial, he left the Cadillac at home and drove a beat-up Chevy to the courthouse. Arriving at least an hour early, he went straight to the courtroom and staked out the table next to the jury box, arranging a ragged legal pad and five stubby pencils in tight formation. Each pencil was a different color.
When he stood to address the jury in voir dire, the sheet of paper in his hand appeared to be trembling. His suit was worn, shiny in spots, a mismatched button dangling precariously from his suitcoat on a couple of threads.
As the witnesses testified, he made notes in five colors, scrambling for a pencil, checking to make sure it was the right color, and scribbling furiously. It was his own color code, and he never explained it to anyone, not his law partners, not even his son. And now we’ll never know the code. Charley Popejoy died on April 15. He was 90.
Watching Popejoy in operation in front of a jury or even as he left the building and walked to the beater in the parking lot, you thought he was a struggling lawyer working on his first case. You wanted to give him a new pencil or take him to a resale shop for a better suit. That’s what he wanted. If things were going the way he wanted them to go, you thought he was representing a relative who could not afford a real lawyer.
He tried his first case more than 100 times, and every time it was for an insurance company. In a period when Illinois law did not require the disclosure of insurance in discovery, Popejoy was a master craftsman, shielding insurers from liabilities large and small. He produced verdict after verdict that left plaintiffs and their lawyers sputtering in frustration from Waukegan to Kankakee and Geneva. There were a few like him — Tom Yates, Reese Hubbard, and Charley’s brother-in-law Gates Clancy — but he may have been the last of them.
Born in Delphi, Indiana, Popejoy was the eighth of eleven children. He was a gifted and determined athlete, setting records in distance races in high school and playing basketball at a level that landed him a spot in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. He won Big Ten championships in track at Purdue. Even in his later years, he remained the keenest of competitors. "The last thing you ever wanted to do was play ping pong or toss horseshoes with Charley," says a former partner. "He’d give you a couple of points, and then it was over."
Working at the stockyards, Popejoy made it through the John Marshall Law School in time for World War II. He rose to the rank of first sergeant in the U.S. Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Returning home after the war, he opened the door to insurance work as an adjuster for the Chicago Motor Club. When he decided to establish his own office, he started with a stack of Motor Club files, beginning with subrogation claims in which one insurer was disputing another insurer’s claim over a bent fender. He took whatever a carrier would offer, traveling to eight counties. It was a start, and Popejoy built it into a large and lucrative insurance defense practice with its headquarters in a converted apartment above Tauber’s Delicatessen on Main Street, just south of the tracks in Glen Ellyn. Young lawyers who came to work for him were first assigned to an office in a former kitchen. It was above the deli kitchen, and it was ripe with the scent of corned beef and pastrami.
He had a knack for hiring. At one point, he was interviewing Ralph Gabric and John Bowman for the same position. Gabric went on to become one of the state’s great lawyers, president of the DuPage County Bar Association and president of the Illinois State Bar Association. Bowman, who was offered the job when Gabric decided to work in the Loop (that’s Gabric’s version), went on to become State’s Attorney, a circuit judge, and now a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court. A few years later, Popejoy’s hired hands included Bowman, the late George Unverzagt, and John Teschner. Unverzagt served as a circuit judge and a justice of the Appellate Court, and came close to a spot on the Illinois Supreme Court. Teschner served as circuit judge. Associate Judges James Jerz and Richard Lucas also worked for Popejoy on their way to the bench.
Although many lawyers worked hard for Popejoy, no one worked harder than Popejoy himself. He put in long days and brought work home every night. And he loved it. On Saturdays, he served his profession as an unpaid volunteer, interviewing bar applicants and investigating disciplinary matters in a time long before the creation of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and its salaried staff.
Popejoy’s son, Kenneth, who became an associate judge in 1997, remembers only two family vacations, each of them only a week long. The first time Popejoy took even an hour away from the office came when Ken began competing in high school athletics. "He would schedule his trials and his depositions to make sure he was at my meets," Ken recalls. Charley’s first trip in an airplane came when Ken, a world-class runner, was competing in the national high school championships in Sacramento.
In his later years as a lawyer, Popejoy moved from insurance defense into divorce work. Associate Judge John Demling had just finished law school and was working with his father when he went to court to watch his father and Popejoy argue a routine temporary support motion. The presiding judge was the late George Borovic, a gentle soul with the visage of the proverbial prince of darkness. With young Demling watching incredulously, Popejoy and the older Demling battled before a darkening Borovic. "I still cannot believe it," Demling recalls now. "They were at each other’s throats in a matter of seconds. I thought I was going to have to step between them." It came to an end only when the battling lawyers ran out of accusation and invective.
Still shaken several hours later and wondering about his commitment to the legal profession, young Demling was leaving the office on Duane Street in Glen Ellyn for the day. He went to his parents’ apartment upstairs to say goodnight. As he approached the door, he heard a piano and a banjo and two terrible singing voices. As he entered, he was stunned to see his father at the piano and Popejoy on the banjo wailing "Oh, Susannah."
As the two old lawyers prepared for their own version of "The Saints Go Marching In," they saw the stunned look on the young lawyer’s face. They knew they needed to explain.
"Yes, we battle in court," they said almost in unison. "But when we leave the courtroom, we are good friends."
We lost a good friend in Charley Popejoy.
Lester Munson is an attorney, an associate editor of Sports Illustrated, and a former president of the DuPage County Bar Association. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Judy, also an attorney.