CHAMPAIGN – A veteran Champaign attorney known as an aggressive advocate for his clients, especially in divorce cases, is also being remembered as a softie with a great legal mind and an even better sense of humor.
Arthur "Art" Lerner, 71, of Dewey, died early Saturday from complications from Crohn's disease, according to his son Scott, who practiced law with him in Champaign.
Mr. Lerner had been at Carle Foundation Hospital since March 11, when he drove himself there complaining of a stomach ache, Scott Lerner said.
"He had worked immediately up to then. He had planned on leaving for China on vacation with his wife Marcia on Monday, March 12, for two weeks," Scott Lerner said.
Mr. Lerner, who was born with cerebral palsy, was the living embodiment of a person who never let his disabilities get in his way, friends said.
"Art could just do it," said fellow lawyer Steve Beckett of Urbana, who often traded legal strategies and jokes with Mr. Lerner. "He was the most politically incorrect, politically correct person I ever met. He was just an absolute delight."
"His disability was something that never slowed him down on anything," said Mr. Lerner's close friend Charlie Palmer, also a Champaign attorney practicing 50 years, as Lerner had.
"So many people misinterpreted him as a grump. If there was anyone with a sense of humor, it was Art. He could laugh at himself and enjoyed very much being the brunt of jokes, which I accommodated him on regularly," said Palmer, who had a standing weekly lunch date with Mr. Lerner and retired Champaign County judges George Miller, Creed Tucker and Harold Jensen for years.
Scott Lerner said he, his brother Fred, also a practicing attorney in Chicago, and his sister, Sandy Schwartz, a teacher in Bement, never considered their father "overly tough."
"As a kid, you'd be in the store and say, 'Those Ding-Dongs look good,' and he'd say, 'That's a great idea,'" Scott Lerner said.
Mr. Lerner's cerebral palsy left him with a gravelly voice, an unsteady gait and some involuntary movement.
Once, Palmer said, Mr. Lerner tripped in the courtroom before a jury, falling flat on his face and silencing those present.
Mr. Lerner scrambled to his feet, walked to his client and said, "That's what you get for hiring a spastic lawyer," Palmer recalled.
Mr. Lerner, from Chicago, graduated from the UI College of Law in 1959 and opened his practice in Champaign, never leaving.
Scott Lerner said his father argued eight cases before the Illinois Supreme Court between 1961 and 2004.
Mr. Lerner was a noted criminal defense attorney for many years, but in the last dozen or so, he limited his practice almost exclusively to family law.
"His death is a major blow to the family law bar," said Champaign County Judge Arnold Blockman. "The attorneys like dealing with him because he was very straightforward. When he came into court, you knew it was a significant matter he would fight over. He was very honest, very upfront, very professional and just an excellent lawyer."
Presiding Judge Tom Difanis said Mr. Lerner acted as a spokesman for the family law attorneys.
"He would send me letters that started out by saying, 'The private bar is afraid to address this issue, but I don't care, so they got me to write the letter,'" Difanis said with a laugh.
"When I first started on the bench, I was doing (divorces). I'd render rulings in writing and he'd send me a letter suggesting where I had made mistakes. He always did it very politely and appropriately."
When he was state's attorney, Difanis went head to head with Lerner on one of the most notorious cases in the history of the University of Illinois. Lerner represented Robert Parker, an administrator accused of stealing $630,000 from the UI Foundation in the late 1970s and early 1980s and spending the money on himself and prostitutes.
"That was the most memorable because we had to try it twice," Difanis said, referring to a hung jury in the first trial, both of which had to be moved out of the county in 1982 due to pretrial publicity. Parker was ultimately convicted.
"Trying a case against Art, you had to bring your best. You had to be prepared. I've said to others and to his face, he plays by the rules but he'd break a chair over your head if he thought he could get away with it," Difanis said.
Palmer said even though Lerner wasn't very good at it, he loved to play golf. The two also fished together often.
He recalled a fishing trip to Wisconsin during which Lerner, with great effort, landed a 10-pound walleye while his buddies were lunching.
"While Art was looking up taxidermists in the Yellow Pages, the other guys were on the dock cleaning his fish. We had it for supper that night. He got over it rather quickly," Palmer said.
Lerner was also active in the Tom Jones Challenger League, a form of baseball played by children with disabilities.
Retired Channel 3 sportscaster and league commissioner Tom Jones of Champaign said Lerner's own disability made him very empathetic to the children in the league, which turns nine this year.
"He was a coach on the field. He assisted us with registration. He worked with our committee throughout the years. He always had ideas," said Jones. "His challenges were great but he was able to overcome them and gain success in his field."
A memorial service for Lerner is planned for the Champaign County Courthouse at 3 p.m. on May 1, also known as Law Day in the United States.