The large shadow cast at the Piatt County Courthouse by the late Judge John P. Shonkwiler continues seven years after his death, as does his dedication to both court and country.
Those things were remembered at a ceremony Saturday to dedicate a memorial marker to the judge, along with his sense of humor and capacity for compassion that some did not get to see.
“His spirit looms large here,” said current Judge Karle Koritz, who connected the former Chief Judge to Abraham Lincoln by noting the calendar had traveled “four score and in its seventh year” since Shonkwiler’s birth in 1933.
Speakers regaled the crowd with stories of dedication, professionalism, and of the judge’s high opinion of Piatt County, where he served for 47 years.
“He managed to remind me when I traveled here that in Piatt County it was always just a little sunnier, the grass a little greener, and that everything was positively more pleasant than in my own county,” commented retired Champaign County Judge Greg Townsend, who served while Shonkwiler was the Chief Judge for the six-county Sixth Judicial Circuit.
Pointing to bright sunny skies shining on the Piatt County Courthouse on dedication day, Townsend added, “and know that up there today, chief, you’re just making sure that one more time you are letting me know that.”
The pair would also spar about their respective military preferences, Shonkwiler having served in the Navy and Townsend in the Army.
Upon finding out that the Army had more seagoing vessels than the Navy, Townsend quickly delivered a bumper sticker to his friend that said, “Sail Army.”
“He was not too pleased with that, but polite nonetheless,” Townsend chuckled.
But Shonkwiler could dish it out as well, said his Champaign County colleague and friend. That came through when there was a shakeup in the Chiefs of Staff that ended up with an all-Navy leadership.
“He was very quick to point out to me that it must certainly be some effort to obtain good leadership from the best of the military services,” said Townsend. “On that point we had to disagree.”
On the bench, Shonkwiler was described as professional and a mentor to all, with attorneys knowing what to expect: Being prepared for their time in court with no time for ego.
“He taught us to leave the showboating and BS at the courthouse door,” added Bill Tracy, who practiced in front of the judge for three decades.
“It is fair to say that Judge Shonkwiler taught a generation of lawyers how to do our jobs the right way. For that and so much more I will always be indebted to him and will always remember him fondly,” added Tracy.
Personal stories of Shonkwiler also highlighted the 30 minute event to formally dedicate the memorial stone that sits on the southeast corner of the courthouse lawn, which his former top floor office overlooks.
“You could always tell when the judge was in town, either early in the morning or late at night, on a weekend or on a holiday. All you had to do was come on by here, take a look at the southeast corner on the third floor, and his light was on,” added Tracy. “And you knew he was there and was hard at it.”
“And when his 1970 Buick was on the square,” added Roger Simpson, who also practiced in front of the judge for more than 30 years. “He always volunteered that it’s got another 200,0000 miles left.”
Simpson also shared a story that dates back to 1986, when he laid in a hospital bec wondering if he would be able to return to his work as a public defender. Shonkwiler visited him one afternoon, and Simpson quickly apologized and said he understood if another public defender needed to be appointed.
“He said, ‘no. No one else is going to be appointed. You’re going to get better and we will welcome you back,’” added Simpson. “He was correct in all three of those predictions, and I will forever be thankful for that visit.”
Even Koritz, who did not serve as a judge under Shonkwiler, learned from his legacy, most notably from Court Reporter Jamie Mumm, who worked with him for nearly 30 years.
“I learned how to be a judge by asking Jamie probably a dozen times a day, ‘what would Judge Shonkwiler do here? What would Judge Shonkwiler have done here?’ Not just his ruling, but how would he have handled it with courtroom demeanor and courtroom management?” said Koritz, currently the presiding judge in DeWitt County who has heard his share of cases in the neighboring Piatt County Courthouse.
Mumm added Shonkwiler was not only an honored judge, “but as a citizen of Piatt County, he gave so much to the community.
“I think that people should remember him as part of this building,” added Mumm, who still works at the courthouse.
(News-Gazette reporter Mary Schenk also contributed to this story.)