Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An Unmarked Trail

Judge Harlington Wood, Jr. is simply one of the most extraordinary human beings I have ever met. I was privileged to have worked for him, first as a student intern after my first year of law school, later as a full-time law clerk the year after I graduated.

As a young woman who grew up in a blue-collar community and attended law school at a public university in the Midwest, I would have thought that I would have had absolutely no chance at a clerkship serving a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Yet there I was, a rather shy, timid woman, not so sure of her abilities, and, at the time, dealing with the last, painful days of my first marriage to an active alcoholic. Nevertheless, my thoughts and opinions counted with Judge Wood, and I, in turn, learned that no legal analysis or decision is worthwhile unless founded in fairness, common sense, and an appreciation of how ordinary human beings live and work.

The story of my time at the court is nothing of import, other than the great privilege of getting to know a man who was and is not only a great lawyer, jurist, and public servant, but also someone who is both a loyal, old-school Republican and a quiet but forceful defender of the rights and dignity of all human beings regardless of race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation, someone who can rightfully claim as friends such diverse persons as Richard Kleindienst (former U.S. Attorney General), Russell Means (AIM activist during the 1973 Wounded Knee crisis), and Judge Richard Posner.

The story of Judge Wood's life is remarkable, spanning his days in the ROTC cavalry, trial lawyer in state court, U.S. attorney, U.S. district court judge, Assistant U.S. Attorney General during the Nixon administration (including time negotiating conflicts at Wounded Knee, Alcatraz, and D.C. anti-war demonstrations), and finally Circuit Judge at the U.S. Court of Appeals. The story is told in his memoirs, An Unmarked Trail: the Odyssey of a Federal Judge, now finally available in print at

Some of the comments at the book's website include the following:
"My first solo jury trial in the United States District Court in Springfield, Illinois was before Judge Harlington Wood, Jr. No nervous young attorney could have drawn a better venue. He was fair and patient and softened the embarrassment of my rookie mistakes in his courtroom. Riding An Unmarked Trail with Judge Wood will take you from the ROTC horse cavalry at the University of Illinois to tense negotiations at Wounded Knee. From a law practice in Springfield, his life story takes us on far-flung adventures and reaches the highest levels of the Department of Justice in Washington. Long and lean with a sparkle in his eye and a wry grin, Harlington Wood has left his mark not just on this attorney, but on our nation. Abe Lincoln is his hero and Wood played him convincingly in local theatre. But his connection with that great Prairie lawyer is more than just a dramatic pose. Harlington Wood's public life brought that great Lincoln tradition to his courtrooms and to all who were fortunate to share his journey."

Richard J. Durbin
U.S. Senator from Illinois

"Harlington and I have been colleagues on the Seventh Circuit for many years, but until I read his fascinating memoir I had only a dim idea of his extraordinary life, including distinguished service in World War II and his decisive contribution on behalf of the Justice Department in resolving the Wounded Knee crisis in 1973. Nor had I realized what an extraordinary world traveler Harlington was-how intrepid, resilient and adventurous. His modesty is excessive, but cannot quite conceal his sterling character and a life of great public service seasoned with excitement."

Richard A. Posner
Circuit Judge
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

"Harlington Wood, Jr., retired Senior Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, shows us how great men can live among us in quiet unassuming ways. Wood's appropriately named memoir An Unmarked Trail provides a remarkable first hand glimpse into some of the defining moments of modern history. His life is a true reflection of the American Dream-a Midwestern boy's own desire for adventure takes him around the world and back. On the journey we witness the Japanese surrender in the Philippines, take a final glimpse of Stalin preserved under glass in Red Square, get a front row seat to the anti-war demonstrations during the Nixon administration, attend the strained negotiations to end the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 and travel to post-Glasnost Russia in 1992. This personal book paints a portrait of a man whose life was lead by confidence tempered by humility. I am grateful he allows us all to share in his extraordinary journey."

Alison Davis Wood
Producer, WILL-TV (PBS)
Also available online is a video of a 1994 interview with Judge Wood on a local PBS station for the show Prairie Fire.

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