All roads lead to Illinois

John Coady honors his alma mater through service
John Coady
John Coady has received the 2019 LAS Distinguished Service Award.

When John Coady (BA ’74, political science) was a junior at Illinois in 1973, he ran for the newly created student seat on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, but he said he lost to an opponent who outworked him.

“After that, I vowed that I would never be outworked by any opponent in a political election ever again,” said Coady, who went on to a distinguished career as a judge. “I may lose, but I’m not going to lose for lack of effort. So, whenever I ran for office, I gave it 100 percent.”

But Coady’s record shows he doesn’t just give 100 percent to political passions. He has also given everything in service to the University of Illinois, his community, and his profession.

Coady has served Illinois on alumni boards at both the departmental and college levels, and he is on the President’s Council of the University of Illinois Foundation and a member of the I Fund. He served his community through mentoring high school students and establishing a girls soccer program. And he has served his profession as president of the Illinois Judges Association and by mentoring judges.

But this is only a small sampling of his service. With such a record, Coady has been awarded the 2019 LAS Distinguished Service Award.

Coady was born and raised in Taylorville, Illinois, just southeast of Springfield, and has lived most of his life there. But he recalls that from a young age, he sensed that all roads led to Champaign-Urbana and the U of I.  

“The driving force behind my commitment is the love for the university, and that love began early in my childhood,” he said. “The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was viewed as something special. It was an honor to be accepted there.”

After boosting his grades in high school, he managed to achieve that honor. He arrived on the Illinois campus in the fall of 1970, not long after Vietnam War riots during the spring drew the National Guard to campus.

“I was a political science major, and the protests reverberated through all of the classes during the years I was at Illinois,” he recalled.

Coady’s interest in politics began at Taylorville High School, where he was student council president, and it continued at Illinois. In an all-campus student government election in 1973, he was elected to the Undergraduate Student Association Steering Committee, which made a lobbying trip to Washington D.C. as part of a successful nationwide effort to preserve student aid funding.

“Everybody in Congress that we wanted to see made it a point to come speak directly with us, and I thought that was classy,” he said.

One year later, Coady was chosen to be one of four co-chairs of the university’s Interfraternity Council’s Statesman and Students Committee, and he went to D.C. once again, this time to invite members of the Illinois congressional delegation to spend a day on the U of I campus. In 1974, they hosted members of Congress around campus to speak at classes and other spots.

“It seemed as if everything was pointing me to politics,” he said. “But it wasn’t just politics for the sake of politics. It was for the sake of being able to serve, to do things for people, to make institutions better.”

In addition to politics, Coady immersed himself in all sorts of activities at Illinois, including the homecoming committee and ping pong, a club sport. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1974, it was on to The Ohio State University, where he obtained his law degree in 1977.

When Coady returned to central Illinois to work as a public defender, he kept his eye open for an opportunity to run for state representative. Instead, in 1984 he successfully ran for Christian County State’s Attorney, representing the state’s interests in legal cases, typically as a prosecutor.

He continued to think he was heading for a position in the legislative branch, when suddenly there arose a double vacancy for associate judge in 1987.  The 24 judicial circuits in Illinois include circuit judges, who are elected, and associate judges, who are selected by the circuit judges. Circuit courts are the trial courts of Illinois, handling both civil and criminal cases.

Coady faced 24 candidates for two openings as associate judge. But despite these odds, he was selected for the position at age 35, making him the second youngest judge in the state at the time. Then, in 1993, he was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court as circuit judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which covers nine counties stretching from the Springfield area south. He was then elected to the position in 1994, and voters retained him in 2000 and 2006.

In the midst of his burgeoning career as a judge, Coady began to give back. When a friend asked if he could tutor her daughter on how to interview for scholarships, he decided to make this service available to the Taylorville community. Over the past 25 years, he has mentored 16 students, and every single one of them has received a scholarship. For several years, he and his wife, Kathy, also opened their home to high school seniors in the area through a program welcoming those who had been accepted to Illinois. 

In 2010, the Department of Political Science at Illinois appointed him to its charter Board of Visitors, which operates like an alumni board, and he also mentors political science students. Then, from 2015 to 2017, he served as president of the LAS Alumni Association Board, which he describes as “one of the most wonderful adult experiences I’ve ever been involved with. To a person, I have never worked with people of such good will.”

In the judicial arena, meanwhile, he served on all sorts of committees and associations, including the Illinois Supreme Court’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee. After his retirement in 2009, he became the first retiree to ever serve as president of the Illinois Judges Association.

Over the years, he somehow found time to also start a girls YMCA soccer program in Taylorville, chair a United Way drive, and chair the Christian County Prevention Coalition to reduce substance abuse among youth. Currently, he is president of the Illinois State Employees Association of Retirees Board and teaches government and criminal justice at Lincoln Land Community College.

His wife, a retired elementary school music teacher, is also an Illinois alum, and they met during John’s senior year at U of I. You know you’re talking to alums with a pure University of Illinois pedigree when you learn that the Coadys named their family dog Oskee Bow Wow.

What’s more, the license plates for the family’s two cars read LUV IL and ILINI 7. John and Kathy Coady have also held season tickets to Illinois football for 47 of the past 50 years—all but the three years John attended The Ohio State University Law School. They’ve had Illinois basketball season tickets almost as long—46 of the past 50 years.

“When I came to campus, I arrived with a strong affection for Illinois, and it only grew,” he said. “But it wasn’t only because of the excellent education. It was the people I interacted with, the teachers, advisers, administrators, and alumni, and I’m the better for it.”

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Doug Peterson