Downs is up

Oak Park attorney takes helm of Illinois State Bar Association

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By Lisa Files

Oak Park attorney Robert K. Downs likes to run.

At an age when some of us might be thinking about retirement, Downs was installed as president of the Illinois State Bar Association on June 18, after winning a three-way race against two prominent Chicago attorneys, Russell W. Hartigan and Stephen M. Komie.

"I would always finish a race faster than I started, picking off other runners just in time," Downs said about his college running career at Grinnell College in Iowa.

But he could have been talking about his race for the ISBA presidency.

"Everybody was a good candidate. I won because I kept going. I didn't get tired," Downs explained.

"It was a four-month campaign. In that third or fourth month I could see others slacking off, even coming up and saying, 'You're not going to the Women's Bar Association, are you? I've got to spend the night at home.' Well, I'd go, and I'd enjoy it too. I went to 135 meetings all over the state."

Downs wife, Barbara, a partner in their downtown and Oak Park family law firm, Downs Law Offices, PC, supported him from the starting line. "Every morning we have a ritual: coffee together at 5 a.m. [One morning] she looked at me and said, 'If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right.' We showed up everywhere together."

During his one-year term as president, Downs hopes to improve diversity in the ISBA, work to update Supreme Court rules on family law, launch a solo and small firm conference in October, and run a joint conference for the ISBA and Illinois Judges Association, among other goals.

Fulfilling the ISBA mission "to enable lawyers to be all they can be," will be a tall order. But Downs is eager to lead the pack.

This campaign was not his first. Back in 1974, Downs won a two-year term as a state representative to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he earned a Best Legislator award. As chairman of the house executive and human resources joint subcommittee, he was chief sponsor of the Illinois Detoxification and Alcoholism Treatment Act, which redirected state efforts in dealing with addiction problems.

He also sponsored and saw passed the first "anti-redlining" law, addressing discrimination in mortgage lending practices.

Downs has served on the ISBA Assembly since 1993 and on the board of governors since 1997. A past chair of the Family Law Section Council, he served on the Task Force on Attorneys for Children and chaired a Special Committee for Child Representative Training.

Community activist

Downs' work against discrimination and segregation was born out of his instinctive reaction to injustice as a teen. "I lived in Oak Park. My father was a successful businessman with offices downtown. Perhaps two times a week, my mother and sister [and I] would drive downtown on Washington Boulevard to meet my father at the office and we would go to a restaurant," he recalled.

"And when we were driving home, it was inevitable. There would be comments by my parents about changing neighborhoods. ... I reacted to them, that it wasn't right to talk about people that way. And so we would get into arguments. They perceived that I was on the wrong side of what, at the time, were mainstream racial views. And I found myself gravitating to people who felt the same way, whether it was ministers or even friends in school."

Soon after graduating from Florida's Stetson Law School in 1965, Downs became one of the activists who helped make Oak Park the integrated community it is today. In the mid-1960s, he helped form and chaired the Oak Park/River Forest Citizen's Committee for Human Rights and worked to promote an open housing ordinance.

"It was like a road show," Downs remembered. "The Realtors were, if you could use the term, legitimate opposition. I would stand up and speak for the citizen's committee, and a real estate agent would speak on behalf of the Realtors. We were the communists, and they were preserving the freedom of contract, the right of the people to decide property rights, with, of course, the hidden message, 'We're going to prevent from happening in Oak Park what is happening on the West Side of Chicago,' as there is a block-by-block resegregation.

"When trustees passed that ordinance on the stage of Oak Park and River Forest High School it was pandemonium. Police had to protect them. No issue before or since has divided the community like that," he added.

"I had a passion for [this issue]. I didn't have a stake in it. There were things happening to our communities that needed to stop. Oak Park saved itself by going the right direction at the time."

In 1978, after Downs finished his term as a state representative, he and his wife invested $1,500 to help Dan Haley and others start an independent newspaper called WEDNESDAY JOURNAL.

Six months into the paper's life, Downs was told it had severe money troubles. Believing that the paper was "great," he asked for time to raise additional money and did so. Downs became president and chairman of the board, promising Haley complete editorial independence. He continued to help with management issues for about five years. His title now is chairman emeritus.

With the ISBA race over, Downs will satisfy his competitive spirit by occasionally watching stock car races in central Wisconsin. One of his two daughters, Kelli, is engaged to champion driver Steve Seals. On the side of his car, written in large type, is "Downs Law Chicago."

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