Ridgeland Common Ice Rink. Rat Time. 1982.
Blades crunching the hard ice, legs moving like pistons, the kid tore along the side boards until his black-taped stick blade picked up the puck. He whirled dervish-like without losing a stride and gave a demonstration of dipsy-doodle stickhandling up the ice. None of the players could get near him and when he skated inside the blue line, he let rip with an ear-cracking slapshot, his stick smacking the puck like a fired M-15. Before the goalie knew that the puck left the kid’s stick, it slammed into the netting behind him, bulging the twine in the top shelf next to the peanut butter.
I had been hanging around rinks for over 30 years, a consummate rink rat and for a good part of that time my fellow rat was a Catholic priest, Fr. John Murray. John and I looked at the kid and then at each other. “Great wheels,” he said. “Heavy shot,” I said.
The game ended after all of us were worn out from trying to stop the kid from scoring at will. We approached him in the locker room. “Nice game,” we chirped. “Where do you play hockey?”
“Wherever I can find a game,” the kid said.
“You mean you are not with a team?”
“Not now. I don’t have a car and it’s hard to get around.”
“What do you do for a living?” Murray asked.
“I am a bagger and shopping cart pusher at Jewel.”
“What school you go to?” I asked.
“I don’t. I dropped out of Kelly my second year.”
The kid had his gear off and tossed his skates over his shoulder. “You guys here tomorrow?” he asked.
“Every day we can,” we chimed.
“What do you guys do” he asked.
We told him. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” the kid said walking off to the Ridgeland El stop.
And that’s how Steve Demitro’s life intersected with mine for the next 32 years.
Steve and I came to know each other as the season rolled along. He was fascinated that I was a lawyer.
“There are better careers,” I told him. “Becoming a lawyer is a lot of work. Practicing law is even more hard work. It demands all you’ve got—physically, mentally and emotionally. No sane person would do it.”
“I’d like to be a lawyer,” Steve said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him the reaction that spun out of my brain—high school drop outs don’t become lawyers. Instead I told him it would be a good idea to get a GED. I learned over time that Steve was the ninth and final child of immigrant parents. His dad worked in the steel mills and died when Steve was nine. His mother supported the family by cleaning downtown office building all night long. English was not spoken in the house. Steve’s mom knew only a few words in English. Here and there Steve’s English suffered because it was his second language. Steve’s siblings opposed to his interest in higher education. They believed government jobs were safe with decent paychecks and a pension.
No more came of the lawyer subject for a few more rat time months. One snowy day, Steve announced, “I got my GED. Now what do I do? I wanna go to Law School.”
I broke the news to him that he had to get a college degree first and that was much harder than the GED and took four years.
On a brighter note, I told Steve the Dean of Wright Junior College, Ray LeFevour, was a friend and I suggested we talk to Ray about getting Steve into Wright. Ray generously arranged for Steve to have a Presidential Scholarship as long as he maintained a high G.P.A. Steve hit the books for the first time in his life and graduated with an Associate of Arts degree. I was amazed.
I was even more amazed that this son of non-English speaking parents told me two years later that he graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.A. in Political Science in 1990. I didn’t think Steve’s severe handicaps would allow him to finish Junior college. I was certain he could not handle the tough University of Illinois curriculum.
More than anything else, sport provides insights into a person’s character, his good traits and his bad ones, traits that he carries with him all his life, in the arena and away from it. Through the years of Steve’s schooling, we continued to play hockey on a regular basis. I found Steve to be the best of teammates. He was completely unselfish and passed the puck rather than hog it. He gave every ounce of effort he had for every second of every shift. Though the smallest player on the ice, he was fearless and if one of his teammates was the victim of a cheap shot, Steve promptly let the offender know it with a hard check into the boards. No matter what the score was, he never gave up. A trait that helped him play semi-professional and professional hockey.
It was becoming apparent to me, on and off the ice, that Steve had character and a touch of charisma. The step he wanted to take next was huge, so huge I thought it would be impossible. The signal barometer for law school admission is a vexatious test known ingloriously as the LSAT. Steve took it twice. His scores were not high enough for admission to any law school. He had to stay in Chicago. His mother’s health was worsening. He lived upstairs and she lived downstairs in a McKinley Park two flat and he was becoming her primary caretaker.
John Marshall was the most promising law school for Steve. Although he could not enter the freshman class because of his poor LSAT scores, he remained resourceful and undeterred. He wrote a scholarly article for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin arguing why the LSAT was a fallible predictor of law school success. He showed the article to the Dean of John Marshall, Gil Johnson, and Gil took a chance on the kid who refused to stop knocking at his door. Unlike other Law Schools, John Marshall had a two course conditional program which rejected students could take. If they achieved a certain grade in each course, they were conditionally admitted to the freshman class. Steve missed passing the two courses by a hair. Nonetheless, he had exhausted all avenues of relief and could not get into law school. The many hockey players who had come to know and love Steve offered him encouragement and suggested other careers open to him because he had a college degree.
One trait I had learned about Steve, on and off the ice, is that he never gave up. Never. He spent four years doing everything possible to convince Dean Johnson to give him one chance to succeed in law school. Impossible. No student who failed the conditional test had ever been allowed to attend John Marshall. Steve was determined to be the first. I don’t know if Steve’s arguments wore Dean Johnson down or convinced him Steve could make it, but he succumbed and allowed Steve to join a freshman class as an ordinary student.
I knew how difficult it had been for me to plow through all the appellate cases in fantastically long law books. I knew many bright students who couldn’t hack it and dropped out. I was convinced Steve’s handicaps would cause him to either flunk out or drop out.
On a sunny June day in 1999, Fr. Murray and I were in the audience of those watching the awarding of law school diplomas. Dean Johnson was handing out the diplomas. When Steve walked across the stage, the Dean broke into a huge grin and said, “I never thought I’d see this day.” Steve smiled back appreciatively and took the diploma in hand. If anyone had ever earned one, it was Steve. He made Dean’s list his last semester.
I convinced one of Chicago’s premier personal injury lawyers, Terry Mahoney of Neville & Mahoney, to give Steve a chance to learn civil practice and personal injury law from a master. Steve worked as hard at lawyering as he did everything else and assisted Terry in getting several six-figure settlements and trial verdicts. Because Steve was so well-liked and respected in several different Chicago organizations, he was able to bring substantial cases to the firm, cases that he handled and with Terry Mahoney.
Despite the demands of the profession for the law is indeed a jealous mistress, Steve continued and continues to play hockey in an elite men’s league he founded and operates, the Masters Hockey League. A good son, he spent large amounts of time caring for his mother until she passed away. He has become active in several charitable organizations, one program is designed to provide pro-bono legal services to the underprivileged. Steve also served as Chairman of the Education Funding Advisory Board for the State of Illinois.
When Steve told me he wanted to run for a Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, I began to have my usual reaction of what an impossible goal he had set for himself. I warned him of the pitfalls in being a candidate. He already had weighed them carefully.
As much as Steve wanted the puck in the corner of Ridgeland Commons ice rink in 1982, he wants to serve the people of Cook County as a Judge.
After all these years, I have learned never to bet against Steve Demitro. He is campaigning as hard as he plays hockey. He is a kid who I thought would never get a G.E.D. let alone run for the Circuit Court of Cook County. I have come to respect Steve as a case study in perseverance. I will never underestimate him again.
The author has been an unashamed rink rat for multiple decades. William J. Martin is a former Cook County Assistant State's Attorney who served as the chief prosecutor of mass murderer Richard Speck. He presently concentrates his practice in representing lawyers and judges before their respective disciplinary commissions.