Walk into a local Union restaurant with Marengo lawyer Herb Franks, and it’s evident that everyone knows him.
He stops several times to say hello. He cracks jokes. He shakes hands. He offers hugs.
People know him, and people like him.
But the well-liked Democrat in the heart of GOP country (“It’s how I learned to smile,” he said,) might need even thicker skin for an upcoming “roast” honoring his more than 50 years in the legal profession. The event Aug. 8 will bring state lawmakers and legal heavy hitters to Franks’ stomping grounds.
Featured roasters are Illinois Supreme Court Justices Anne Burke and Thomas Kilbride, Secretary of State Jesse White, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, McHenry County Judge Michael Caldwell, Appellate Court judges Richard Goldenhersh and Mary Schostock and others. Attorney General Lisa Madigan will open the ceremony at Donley’s Village Hall Banquets in Union.
“If they tell the truth, I’m in trouble,” said 80-year-old Franks, managing partner at Marengo-based Franks, Gerkin & McKenna law firm.
All proceeds from the roast – including ticket sales – will benefit Prairie State Legal Services to offer pro bono services to those in need of legal aid.
Franks tells stories of growing up on a Marengo dairy farm (“My dad didn’t care if I came home at 3 a.m. as long as I was in the barn by 5.”) with the same vigor as when he’s speaking of his trip with the United Nations to oversee an international election. (“They said, ‘You know all about Cook County elections, we’re sending you to Georgia.’ ”)
He’s also sincerely, if not comically, self aware.
“Just because you graduate law school doesn’t mean you know too much.”
It’s evidence of a colorful life.
Franks was admitted to the Illinois Bar in June 1961. He credits two people with sparking his interest in the legal profession – his father and a high school teacher.
“My father always thought I’d be a great lawyer because I talk too much,” he said.
A teacher at Marengo High School, David Boies, also gave Franks the push he needed. Boies’ son is a well-known attorney. One day, Franks asked his teacher if he thought he had a future in law.
“[Boies] said, ‘You aren’t too smart, but if you work hard you might make it,’ “ Franks said, laughing. “With an endorsement like that, how could I go wrong?”
Franks graduated high school at 16 years old. He left the Marengo farm to eventually graduate form Roosevelt University in Chicago. He attended law school at American University, Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. He worked on the Hill during the day, and attended class at night.
He was drafted into the Army, and met his wife, Eileen, in 1956 while stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Her sister was married to a man in his platoon.
“She came to visit her twin sister, and she got a husband instead,” he said. They married in 1957.
They had three children – all lawyers – David Franks, state Rep. Jack Franks and Eli Franks. He has six grandchildren.
Back in Illinois, a young Herb Franks began working for a law firm in Rockford. A friend offered him not only a job, but all the cases that were “absolute dogs.”
“And I tried ‘em all.
“Most state’s attorneys were as young and dumb as I was,” he said. “And eventually I started winning a few.”
His career eventually brought him back to Marengo, where he opened the Franks, Gerkin & McKenna law firm on land where he once milked cows for his father.
But first, a watershed moment.
Herb Franks in 1974 represented a local woman to win the county’s first million dollar judgment. A semitrailer missed a turn on Route 20 in Marengo and drove through the woman’s house in the middle of the night. She survived, but with a severed spine she never walked again. She sued the trucking company and was awarded $1 million.
“I said, ‘damn. I’m a lawyer.’ Boies was right. I could be one,” he said.
And he shows no signs of slowing down. When asked if when he’ll retire, he shakes his head.
“When they carry me out.”