URBANA — Those who knew him well would not be the least bit surprised that John Shonkwiler was on the phone last week in his hospital room with one of his bosses giving her his thoughts on who might replace him.
The Monticello man who had been a judge for 47 years died at 10:51 p.m. Wednesday at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, where he had been hospitalized since early May.
He was 79.
"His voice was weak, but his thoughts were clear," said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman. "He did what I would expect him to do. He evaluated the candidates in a very professional manner. He told me he thought very highly of some, and some he didn't think had the right experience or enough experience."
Judge Shonkwiler had informed Garman in May, around the same time he began medical leave, that he intended to retire from the bench effective July 31, a decision that colleagues agree was difficult for the man described as a "workhorse" devoted to the law.
"I'm sure he did that with great reluctance but was very organized about it," Garman said. "He told me he was going to submit his letter saying he would retire July 31, have surgery and hoped to be back by the first of June to serve out the remainder of his term."
He didn't live long enough to hear who will get his seat. His replacement is expected to be named shortly in hopes of that person taking the bench in 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 a teacher to all of us, first and foremost, in how to treat people. I learned an immense amount from him after I came on the bench in 1988. If you had a question or a problem where you needed someone who had been there, John was the guy you called," said Flannell, adding that Judge Shonkwiler had a great sense of humor and a quick smile.
"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."
Garman called her colleague "self-deprecating."
"He was never a man that displayed a big ego and was always very cooperative with the court," she said.
Judge Shonkwiler had been on the bench since 1965, starting his judicial career as a magistrate in Decatur. He was appointed as 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 was the most senior judge on the state's conference of chief judges, where he was chairman of three committees at the time of his death.
"He was presenting and preparing reports right up to the very end," said Garman, who said she was sure the other chief judges would be talking of their friend at their monthly meeting today in Chicago.
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 never married and returned to Monticello to join his father in the practice of law after graduating from the Northwestern School of Law in Chicago in 1962.
"His military career was extremely important to him," Flannell said. "He loved his country. He was a patriot. He would call me back in the 1990s and say, 'I need you to cover Piatt County for a few days.' I would say where are you going and when will you be back? He would say, 'None of your business, but I'll be pouring sand out of my suitcase when I get back.'"
Flannell called his late boss a "workhorse" who spent most weekends in the office.
"I can't count the number of times he called me on Saturday morning or afternoon to see if I was at the office and I usually wasn't," he laughed.
Shonkwiler's long-time court reporter and clerk, Jamie Mumm of Monticello, said the citizens of Piatt County and the state of Illinois have lost a true public servant.
"I had the wonderful privilege and honor to work alongside him for 29 years. We've had a unique working relationship, almost like family. He was patient and caring while always maintaining the utmost professional work ethic," said Mumm, bereft at the loss of her boss just two weeks after the death of her own father, who died a week after learning he had cancer.
"That's exactly what he was, a second father," she said, happily recounting how the judge doted on her four children. "He would take walks and stop by and tease my dogs."
Monticello attorney Roger Simpson practiced in front of Judge Shonkwiler for 38 years both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney and called him a "genuine guy."
"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 the time to be a genuine citizen and friend of the community."
Another Monticello attorney, Hugh Finson, said Judge Shonkwiler was "pretty good at everything that came before him."
"There weren't any kinds of cases that he didn't know anything about," said Finson, who practiced before Judge Shonkwiler 40 years.
Those cases he wasn't familiar with, he'd study in advance, said Finson, who knew of Judge Shonkwiler's 12-hour days.
Simpson called Judge Shonkwiler "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."
"He was an early proponent of getting child support paid," added Simpson.
Flannell said funeral arrangements were still in the works but expected them to be private, in keeping with the judge's wishes.
"He wanted a private family graveside service with no pomp and circumstance," said Flannell.
Judge Shonkwiler is survived by one sister, Mary Alice Strodel of Peoria, five nieces and one nephew. Besides his parents, he was preceded in death by his younger sister, Suzanne Shonkwiler Olds of Wilmette, in 1993.