In Memory of Abner Mikva: He Made the World a Better Place, One Person at a Time

A Personal Reminiscence by Lonni Berkley

I am honored and profoundly humbled to have been asked to write a remembrance of Abner Mikva, so I will attempt in my own way to describe his unique contribution to the trajectory of my life, in particular.  I’ll leave to the history books the daunting task of continuing to assess the remarkable contributions of a just and moral man who so fearlessly served in all three branches of government and embraced social change as social imperative.

I have been a news and political junkie as long as I can remember. When I was probably three or four years old, I adopted the unnerving practice of leaping out of bed the moment my father returned home from work as an attorney, slipping his heavy wing-tipped shoes over my feetie pajamas and discussing world events on his lap while “helping” him eat what was likely his first meal of the day consumed hurriedly at 10:00 at night. Although I was so very young, my father explained to me and instilled in me an appreciation for the gravity of world events which gripped the attention of thinking men and women throughout America in the 1960s. He discussed with me not only the events themselves, but also the champions of movements who had the vision, foresight, and courage to see beyond the racism and ignorance of the moment and grasp the beauty and justice of a world which could be.


Among these courageous heroes whom I came to worship while sitting on my father’s knee were Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and, yes, Abner Mikva.

My father and I worked so very hard for Ab so many times, in so many different roles, because he embodied the very essence of Tikun Olum, the Jewish principle of “repair the world,” i.e., leave the world a better place than it was when you came into it.

The first time I secured a position working for Abner Mikva, it was as a 14-year-old intern. I lived in an area of Lincolnwood known as “the Towers” – as far west, and hence as distant from Evanston as one could get—but I was determined to work for my childhood hero. I rode my bike each day from Lincolnwood to Evanston and felt privileged to be part of the election process.

By that time, I had already decided that when I grew up I would become an attorney. Just like my father. Just like Abner Mikva.

When I shared my life’s dream with my high school counselor in 1974, he asked me, “Lonni, have you ever met a lady lawyer?” It seemed like a perfectly legitimate question, and of course the answer was, “No I have not.” However, if the inquiry was intended to give me pause, to make me ask myself, “Then what on God’s green Earth makes you think YOU young lady can become a lady lawyer?” this particular counselor did not know that I was both Irwin Berkley’s daughter and Abner Mikva’s summer intern. For when my hero, Abner Mikva, heard about the 14-year-old who had ridden her bicycle the nearly eight miles from Lincolnwood to Evanston to work for his campaign that summer, he decided he wanted to meet that intern himself.   And when Ab Mikva asked that young woman, “Lonni what do you want to do with your life when you grow up?” I said, “Mr. Mikva, I desperately want to become an attorney.”

Abner Mikva replied, “Lonni, I believe you will make a fine attorney when you grow up.”  So I was well inoculated against my high school counselor’s effort to infect me with self-doubt.

When less than a decade later, at 23 years old, I raised my hand to be sworn into the Illinois Supreme Court as a licensed attorney, I thought of Abner Mikva. On the day I made partner at Neal Gerber & Eisenberg, less than a decade after that, I thought of Abner Mikva. On the day I launched one of the first women-and-minority-owned law firms in the country, I thought of Abner Mikva. And, finally, on the day my then-secretary, a young man, told me he wanted to resign to join a political campaign to help our Senator, Barack Obama, become president of the United States, I thought of Abner Mikva and his wonderful words of encouragement to me and I said, “Duncan, I’ll see you at the inauguration.” Duncan continues to work directly for President Obama, yet another of countless men and women whose lives were touched and whose spirits were inspired by a man of such profound greatness, the 10th District’s own Abner Mikva.

To paraphrase, “You change the life of one person, you change the world entire.”

God bless you and keep you, Abner Mikva.

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