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Out of Tragedy

Federal Judge Joan Lefkow copes with the devastating loss of her husband and mother by calling for more security for federal judges -- and by publishing a book of her mother's poetry.

Video: Federal Judge Joan Lefkow discusses her mother's poetry and its role in her healing process as she copes with the devastating loss of her husband and mother. For more video visit our channel on YouTube.

On a normal day security is tight at the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago. As visitors pass through metal detectors, uniformed security personnel patrol the main floor. Nineteen floors up, beyond the elevator doors, down empty hallways, past multiple secure office entrances, U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow sits in her quiet chambers.

For Lefkow (L71), her "normal" life came to an end Feb. 28, 2005, the day she returned home from work to find her mother, Donna Humphrey, and husband, Michael Lefkow (L66), murdered in the basement of the family's home in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. Ten days after their deaths, the murderer committed suicide and was identified as a litigant who was upset with Judge Lefkow for dismissing his malpractice lawsuit, brought against doctors at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago for causing disfiguring damage to his face during cancer treatment in the mid-1990s. His target was the judge, but her husband and her mother, who had been visiting Lefkow's family, encountered the hiding man first.

Amid a constant stream of cross-country condolences pouring into her mailbox (many from a strong network of Northwestern friends), Lefkow mustered deep reservoirs of courage to begin her campaign for increased judicial security. Her efforts included testifying only a few short months after her family's tragedy before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for government funding for off-site security for federal judges.

"There is no doubt in my mind that a security system would have saved my husband's and my mother's lives," says Lefkow. "That man broke into our house, and there's a 98 percent likelihood that it wouldn't have happened if we'd had a home security system."

The media's focus on the cruel victimization of a federal judge gave voice to Lefkow's plea for improved judicial security. By May 2005 Congress had approved funding to pay for in-home security systems for federal judges. "I think more than 90 percent of the judges had them installed," Lefkow says.

In addition to calling for improved access to security personnel for federal judges, Lefkow has also spoken out on the issue of increased Internet security for public officials, calling for a restriction on posting of judges' addresses and other personal information on the Internet. (A white supremacist, angered by one of Lefkow's decisions, had posted pictures of the Lefkow family and their home address on the web.)

Her concerns, shared by many in the federal court system, were a major force behind the adoption of the 2007 Court Security Improvement Act, which directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to examine its sentencing guidelines relating to threats posted on the Internet. Her concerns also led to the establishment of the National Center for Judicial Security by the U.S. Marshals Service.

"The Marshals are responsible for judicial security, but they have a lot of other responsibilities [including apprehension of federal fugitives and operation of the Witness Security Program], and there haven't been legislative requirements that certain amounts of money be spent on judicial security," Lefkow says. "This tragedy caused Congress to require the Marshals to consult on a continuing basis with the Judicial Conference of the United States and specifically take the judiciary's security needs into account in setting the Marshals Service's priorities."

Beyond her advocacy for judicial security, Lefkow also found a more personal way to work through her sorrow. In collaboration with her sister, Judith Humphrey Smith, Lefkow published I Speak of Simple Things (Ampersand Inc., 2007), a book of poems written by their mother, Donna Glenn Humphrey. (Read her poems in "The Poetry of Donna Humphrey.") Several requests from friends and family for Humphrey's poetry following her funeral prompted the idea of publishing the book.

"I had known of her poems, but I'd never seen them collected and never really focused on her poetry the way I do now that she's gone," Lefkow says.

The book was published last September with the help of Lefkow's daughters, including Helena Lefkow (WCAS01), who typed the manuscript.

Joan Lefkow hopes that people will discover her mother's individuality and independent spirit through her poetry.

"She was a person who had a life of her own and obviously was very talented," Lefkow says of her mother. "I know if she were alive, it would have made her very happy to have had her poetry published."

Humphrey's imagery-laden poetry hearkens back to a forgotten era.

"My mother had to quit school after eighth grade," says Lefkow, recalling a time when secondary education, especially for girls, ranked low on the priority list. "It was one of her great heartbreaks that she wasn't allowed to go to high school. She had to work on the farm and later care for her ailing mother and her siblings."

Donna Glenn married Jake Humphrey in 1933, and they settled in northeastern Kansas. They reared four children (Joan is the third) on a family-owned farm near Woodlawn, the crossroads community where Donna was born. The children all attended a one-room country school through eighth grade and high school in nearby Sabetha, the same school Donna had once longed to attend.

After their marriage, Jake and Donna spent hard, long hours tending cattle and raising crops on the farm.

"In those days," says Lefkow, "being a housewife was very, very hard work. You had to plant and harvest the garden, you had to do the canning and preserving of the food, and the men would kill the animals, and those animals would have to be rendered. Then, of course, you had to take care of the children."

Poetry became the outlet into which Humphrey poured the letdowns and emotional struggles of her life on the prairie.

"To her, the written word and the sound of words were her music," says Lefkow. "Writing was art for her. And it was a way to give expression to her life, which was filled with many frustrations."

The poetry is especially remarkable, says Lefkow, in part because its author is a sensitive, intelligent woman with no more than an eighth-grade education. "She had native intelligence, clearly," Lefkow observes.

Response to the book has exceeded the family's expectations, thanks to an article in the Chicago Tribune and Lefkow's appearance on the Today Show.

"I'm very satisfied that people who don't know the family are enjoying this book, too," says Lefkow. "I'm getting very positive responses."

Though Lefkow published I Speak of Simple Things to commemorate her mother's incredible life, the book's theme of resolution in the face of difficult and often oppressive setbacks could just as easily be about Lefkow's own strength. I Speak of Simple Things can be seen above all as an ode to Lefkow's and her mother's courageous ways of creating good from debilitating adversity.

More than three years after the family tragedy, Lefkow still finds positive ways to respond to her loss and the lingering sense of responsibility for what happened.

"There is no good in what happened to us, and I can do nothing to make good of it," Lefkow says. "Publishing the poetry was a light in the darkness, a piece of resurrection."

Elizabeth Henley is a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences junior from Pentwater, Mich.

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Lefkow Portrait
Judge Joan Lefkow in her chambers.Photo by Andrew Campbell
Lefkow Senate Testimony
U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on protecting members of the judiciary in May 2005.Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Poetry Book Cover
Joan Lefkow and her sister published a book of poetry by their mother, Donna Humphrey.