Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Federal Judge

Bill Bauer '49 of the U.S. Court of Appeals takes his job very seriously and himself not at all.

Bill Bauer is the only federal judge ever to have a refrigerator named after him. The William J. Bauer Memorial Refrigerator kept perishables, notably beer, cold for decades. Seized in a raid by federal agents as evidence of some manner of malfeasance, the appliance was destined for the scrapheap when Bauer salvaged it. With some ceremony, he installed it outside the press room of the federal courthouse in Chicago. There, like Bauer himself, it has enjoyed a long, cool, and useful life.

Born in Chicago on September 15, 1926, Bill Bauer grew up in Brookdale, a tiny community on the city’s South Side. His father worked as a salesman for the Standard Oil Company. Early on, Bill made himself useful, selling shoes, washing dishes, and delivering The Saturday Evening Post to the neighbors. “We weren’t on the edge of poverty,” he recalled, “but the prevailing attitude at the time was that everybody was supposed to hustle.”

While a teenager, Bill moved with his family to Elmhurst, where he earned his diploma at Immaculate Conception High School. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he enrolled at Elmhurst College. He majored in history, “because it touches all of human experience, good and bad.” He also played right guard on the football Bluejays, becoming locally famous for his practice of wearing baseball catcher’s knee guards to practice, to prevent leg bruises. For spending money, he drove a cab. Before graduating with honors in 1949, he fell in love with a pretty sociology major, Mary Nicol, known as “Mike” to her friends.

On January 28, 1950, during Bill’s freshman year of law school at DePaul, the couple were married. They settled in Elmhurst. By 1956, the Bauers were the proud parents of two daughters, Patricia and Linda, and Bill was serving as first assistant state’s attorney of DuPage County. When his boss, William L. Guild, was named a circuit court judge, Bill filed as a Republican candidate in a special election to succeed Guild as state’s attorney.

He displayed a light political touch. The “politics of mutual destruction” was less in vogue than it is today, and it certainly was not Bauer’s style. In the special election, his Democratic opponent was Prentice H. Marshall, who would go on to his own celebrated legal career. “I didn’t know Bill prior to that campaign,” Marshall recalled, “but he was a neat guy to campaign against. We had a lot of fun.” Bauer defeated Marshall, who, after 41 years, still considers him “a dear friend, and one of the finest attorneys I’ve ever known. If I were a young person in DuPage County interested in a political career, I would go see Bill Bauer. He’s a very classy guy.”

After serving five years as state’s attorney and another five as a DuPage County circuit court judge, Bauer earned his first federal appointment, as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. In that formidable office, he distinguished himself in part by his ability to recruit and his willingness to guide superb young legal talent. As his first assistant, he hired James R. Thompson, who would succeed him as U.S. Attorney and eventually serve four terms as Governor of Illinois. Other Bauer recruits included Dan Webb and Anton Valukas, both future U.S. Attorneys, and Tyrone Fahner, a future Attorney General of Illinois. This imposing prosecutorial team produced a wave of indictments of state and local officials on public corruption charges; the investigations, trials, and convictions continued for years, long after Bauer’s elevation to a federal judgeship in 1971.

On December 11, 1974, President Gerald R. Ford appointed Judge Bauer to an even higher judgeship, on the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, which hears cases from federal district courts in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The Senate confirmed the appointment eight days later. The lifetime appointment places Bauer near the summit of the federal judiciary; only the nine Supreme Court justices outrank him.

A defense lawyer, Julius Lucius Echeles, described Bauer on the bench. “He is very fair and judicial. Because of his personal dignity, he imposes dignity on the courtroom. He never insults a lawyer in front of his client, and he puts people at ease.”

“Bill Bauer has all the attributes of a good judge,” said Robert Cummins, former chair of the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board. “He has good judgment and a great sense of humor. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. And he’s been out after dark a lot.”

The judge’s broad grin, and even broader side-of-mouth asides, are familiar not only to his cohorts at the Federal Building but also to his many admirers at his alma mater. The Bauer home, on Grace Street in Elmhurst, overlooks the west end of campus. Judge Bauer is a favorite campus speaker. He delivered the first Rudolf G. Schade Endowed Lecture in 1986, and the fourteenth in 1999. Since 1976 he has served the College as a trustee (in roughly similar capacities, he serves DePaul, Loyola School of Law, Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, and Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago). The judge says his work on the Elmhurst board gives him “a chance to do something positive for a school that provided me with a great education. I owe the College. This is one of the few ways I can repay my debt.”

The need to pay debts and fulfill obligations, both professional and personal, is a theme of Judge Bauer’s public life. He sounded the theme in an address at Elmhurst’s commencement in 1982. “We all owe rent,” he said. “The better our life, the more rent we owe. We pay our rent by service to mankind.”

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