Shaking Hands with History

Shaking hands with history. That is what I had the honor to do at the end of an all-too-brief photo shoot with retired Federal Judge George Leighton of Chicago. At age 98, he has retained several text books worth of history in his head, with many chapters that could easily be written about him.

Judge Leighton entered Howard University at age 24, no small feat after dropping out of school in the 7th grade to work on an oil tanker. One of the jobs he held during his undergraduate years was working in a kitchen where he peeled potatoes. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1936, Leighton came upon a potato into which he could not get his knife. He soon realized he was actually trying to peel a rock impersonating a potato. He promised himself he would keep that potato rock on his desk someday as a reminder of the hard work he had done. The potato peeling didn’t go on forever, just as he predicted, and Leighton graduated with honors and went on to study and graduate from Harvard Law School in 1946.

Leighton made a name for himself after graduation by defending civil rights cases. Ironically, he once found himself in the defendant’s chair. That experience was one he never forgot and it served to influence him on the bench. Unlike some judges, Leighton said he took it seriously whenever someone claimed to be not guilty, for he had once stood wrongly accused himself.

In 1964, Leighton earned his first judgeship when he because the Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County (1964-1969). Later he severed as a Judge of the Appellate Court (1969-1976). In 1976 Leighton become the first African American Federal Judge when he was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois. Though Judge Leighton "retired" at age 75, he has continued to practice law in Chicago for the past 23 years. He has been staunchly opposed to the death penalty and has taken on many death penalty cases in Illinois. It was a joyous day for him this year when the death penalty was finally laid to rest. Perhaps this is why during my meeting with Leighton he claimed the current case he was working would be his last.

The Honorable Judge George Leighton has undoubtedly earned himself a full retirement. I wish him good health and joyous times with his family and friends for many more years. I hope this blog entry has inspired you to learn more about the Judge and to look around for living history in your midst. Of course, you could just go out and make some history yourself ;)