URBANA — Piatt County Circuit Judge John P. Shonkwiler of Monticello died Wednesday night at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana after a several-month long illness.
He was 79.
In May the highly revered veteran jurist had announced his retirement, which was to take effect July 31. A search for his replacement is in process and it's hoped his successor will be serving by early September.
"He was at peace and prepared to go," said Moultrie County Judge Dan Flannell, who succeeded Judge Shonkwiler as the chief judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit. But Flannell said the man who gave his life to the law had "rallied several times" during his hospitalization.
Flannell called his colleague a "workhorse" and a mentor before there was a formal program for older judges to train young judges.
"He was such a great leader for all of us," Flannell said. "The law was his life. The sanctity of the court was very important to him."
Judge Shonkwiler had been on the bench since 1965, starting his career as a magistrate in Decatur. He was made an associate judge in 1972, was elected as a resident circuit judge for Piatt County in 1974, and had been retained ever since.
Judge Shonkwiler had served as the chief judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit — Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt counties — since 1994. He is believed to be the most senior judge on the state's conference of chief judges, where he was chair of three committees at the time of his death.
A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Judge Shonkwiler served in naval intelligence during both his active duty and while in the Naval Reserve for 20 years after his active duty ended in 1959.
He returned from the service to Monticello to go into private practice with his father, who was general counsel to the Illinois Central Railroad. He never married and is survived by one sister.
Judge Shonkwiler is being remembered as a fair judge who gave much to his community and did so with a smile.
"He was a very dignified jurist, a man who gave everyone a fair shake in a way that left them with a feeling that they had a fair shake and that's an important thing for a judge," said Monticello attorney Roger Simpson, who practiced before Judge Shonkwiler for almost 38 years.
"He took his profession extremely seriously and he knew because he was a judge in a small town he had to be aloof. Despite that, he was always quick with a hello or short story. If we ran into each other in the grocery store, we would have an exchange. He was able to maintain the posture he had to as a judge and still take time to be a genuine citizen and friend of the community. He was a very genuine guy," said Simpson.
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.