Richard T. Cozzola, 69, formerly of Oak Park, died on April 16, 2022, surrounded by family. Born on July 27, 1952, Rich (or “Rick”) was the first of Gerard P. (“Jerry”) and Phyllis M. Cozzola’s four children. On the date of Rich’s birth, Jerry wrote in his journal that he had fulfilled “mine and Phyllis’ ultimate purpose for being on this earth” and noted that newborn Rich’s “looks are exceptional.”
He grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and nearby Oak Park, alongside his younger siblings David, James (“Jimmy”), and Mary-Terese (“MT”) Cozzola. He was a student at Our Lady of the Angels School during the 1958 fire. His faith led him to attend high school at Quigley Preparatory Seminary and then St. Mary’s of the Lake in Mundelein for a brief period.
While he didn’t ultimately become a priest, the lessons he learned in the seminary guided him at Loyola University Chicago (B.A., English, ’74), as a grade school teacher and draft counselor during the Vietnam War, then back to Loyola for law school (J.D. ’80). From the day he was sworn in as an attorney through his death, he dedicated his entire career to serving the public, in particular children and families at the margins of the legal system. He began this journey at Legal Services of Eastern Michigan, then came back to Chicago for the remainder of his 42 years of service, initially as a supervising attorney at Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA).
His return to Chicago brought him closer to the love of his life, Debra. Even though he wore a white polyester suit (without a tie) and his father’s loafers to their first date (a wedding on a Tuesday night), they fell for each other quickly and were married in 1986 at the Evanston Women’s Club. The couple welcomed their son, Marty, into the world in 1989. As the family blossomed, so did his career. After CGLA, he served as supervisor of training for the Juvenile Unit of the Cook County Office of the Public Guardian, and then was asked to help design the curriculum for — and serve as the first program director of — Loyola’s Civitas ChildLaw Clinic.
In 1997, he began a new job as supervising attorney in the Child Law Project at Legal Aid Chicago. In the nearly 25 years he spent there, he worked diligently each day to improve the lives of the countless children he represented in court. Whether he was working to reunite families separated by years of injustice or fighting to ensure that students with special needs had the tools they needed to succeed in school, he represented his clients with a level of empathy and passion that won’t be easily replaced. In his time at Legal Aid Chicago, he served as director of the Children & Families Practice Group, leader of the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk, and most recently as supervisor of training.
He was not only an attorney who fought tirelessly on behalf of individual clients, he was also a caring advisor and instructor to legions of new and experienced public interest attorneys (including his son). He led numerous litigation and trial skills trainings for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and various Chicago-area law schools. The next generation of legal aid lawyers are better equipped to be compassionate anti-poverty advocates because of his mentorship. Throughout his career, he received many accolades for his dedication to justice, including the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Weigle Exceptional Young Lawyer Award (in 1987) and Morsch Public Service Award (in 2011).
Owner of multiple guitars (including one he built by hand), he loved playing new music with old friends and listening to the classics on his massive collection of CDs (even in 2022). A voracious reader, he had a half-dozen books checked out of the local library when he died, each with tidbits of handwritten notes tucked between the pages. He ran the 1985 Chicago Marathon and rarely let foul weather (or a global pandemic) get in the way of his early morning runs. He loved a good meal, whether he was making a home-cooked dinner with his wife, grabbing a quick breakfast in the Loop with his son, or having a potluck with friends. He spent many an afternoon at the corner of Addison and Clark, cheering on the Cubs.
An incredibly kind and gentle man, he was selfless to a fault and would not hesitate to put the needs of his family, his clients, his colleagues, and his profession before his own.
Rich is survived by his siblings (David, Jimmy, and MT); his wife (Debra); his admiring son (Marty); innumerable nieces, nephews, and cousins; brothers- and sisters-in-law; and his godmother (Marie).
He would ask you to stand up for justice, be unrelenting in your love, and sing with your whole heart.
A mass and celebration of Rich’s life will be held later this year, details to come. Arrangements were handled by Donellan Funeral Services.
In lieu of flowers, his family requests that donations be made to:
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, 721 N. LaSalle Drive, Chicago, IL 60654 (catholiccharities.net) or Legal Aid Chicago, 120 S. LaSalle Drive, Suite 900, Chicago, IL 60603 (legalaidchicago.org) or Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, 33 N. Dearborn Street, Suite 400, Chicago, IL 60602 (cvls.org) or the charity of your choice.