A jurist with a keen sense of fairness and a drive to improve the lives of everyone he met, Judge William G. Juergens served his county and his country as a judge in county, circuit, and federal courtrooms.
William George Juergens was born on September 7, 1904, in Steeleville, Illinois. He was the first surviving son of Henry F.W. Juergens, who had emigrated from Hanover in 1889, and his second wife, Mathilda “Tillie” Nolte. William joined a household that already included an elder sister, Selma, from his father’s first marriage. Three more children—Henry, Lola, and Albert—completed the family.
William’s father worked as a tailor with his own shop in Steeleville. Henry Juergens was also deeply involved in the community. He was a charter member of Peace Lutheran Church in Steeleville, and William and most of his siblings were baptized there. Henry also served as mayor and president of the village board. But the family maintained close contact with their relatives in Hanover as well, including Henry’s parents. In 1908, when he was four years old, William and his entire family boarded a ship that took them across the Atlantic to visit Germany and celebrate his grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary.
In 1911, Henry Juergens decided to move his tailoring business to Chester, setting up shop in a building in the 900 block of State Street. Soon, he and Tillie relocated the entire family to Chester as well, and the Juergens children enrolled at St. John’s Lutheran School. According to a memoir written by a contemporary, Jessie Lee Huffstutler, William and his little brother, Henry, soon began to frequent the nearby Chester Opera House. The owner, the jovial Bill Schuchert, nicknamed them the “Feinheimer Twins” after a popular comic strip of the time that featured two mischievous brothers with heavy German accents. Schuchert was so amused by the Juergens “twins” that he allowed them in to the venue for a single nickel instead of two.
The Juergens family quickly became valued members of the community in Chester, but only a few years after their move, their household was visited by tragedy. William’s older half-sister, Selma, had never enjoyed good health, and had even moved to Germany with her grandparents for a time in hopes that the change in climate would strengthen her. But nothing seemed to work. In January of 1913, Selma passed away in Chester at the age of 13. She was buried in Steeleville near her late mother, Anna Runge Juergens. As a young man, William nurtured a desire to become a physician, perhaps motivated by a desire to be able to help people like his sister. By the time he reached high school, however, the challenges of chemistry classes made him realize that a medical career was not in his future.
William may not have enjoyed science, but he was an excellent student over all. In September 1921, while in his final year at Chester High School, he enrolled at Carthage College in Hancock County, Illinois. He and a friend, Ebers Hoffman, finished their senior year studies at Carthage. William, a history major, thrived in the collegiate environment. He was an active member of the debate team and president of the Booster Club. He was also chosen to be the student athletics manager, earning him a special—and slightly tongue-in-cheek—tribute in the 1926 edition of the school yearbook, the Crimson Rambler. “When Coach Omer announced that he needed a student manager and picked Bill Juergens for the job it was another case of having greatness thrust on him, for up to the time he took over the student management of athletics, he was chiefly famed for his silence and for his inability to acquire a regular girl,” one of his classmates joshed. “But be it announced right here that Bill’s administration has been a great success financially, and athletically, for when he turns over his keys in June there will be on hand the best stock of used athletic equipment we have ever had.”
The yearbook profile also hinted at William’s future ambitions: “Bill is a campus favorite and the fellows will miss him next fall when the football season rolls around and something is wanted. Bill expects to study law and if honest straightforward men can succeed in that profession Carthage College will have another alumnus of whom we will all be proud.” Indeed, after graduating from Carthage as part of the Class of 1925, William headed to Ann Arbor for law school at the University of Michigan. He earned his J.D. in 1928 and decided to return to Chester, where he was admitted to the Illinois Bar and opened his own practice.
His Carthage classmates may have poked fun at William’s early lack of success in love, but he soon found the girl he wanted to marry. In December 1929, when he was 25, he married 22-year-old Helen Young in Belleville. Helen came from a close-knit family in Marissa. She and William set up their married household on Swanwick Street in Chester, where he began working as the city attorney in 1930. Sadly, that same year they also lost their first child, a daughter they named Jacquelyn Lou. In 1932, they welcomed another daughter, Helen Jane, and completed the family with a son, William Jr., four years later.
William and Helen were active members of the Chester community. The family worshiped at the local Presbyterian Church, where William taught Sunday School and served as a church elder. Both of them participated in numerous social and charitable organizations in Chester. William joined the Masons, the Shriners, and the Elks Lodge, among others. He was also a charter member of the Chester Lions Club and the chairman of the Randolph County Red Cross.
In 1938, after eight years as city attorney, William set his eyes on the next rung of his career ladder, entering the race for county judge. That November, he defeated his opponent, E.H. Wegener, by a margin of more than 500 votes. With the community and region still feeling the sting of the Great Depression, William focused on running the office more efficiently. The county court funds had been exhausted before he arrived in the job, and loaned money was required to keep the court functioning properly. William economized and was able to pay back the loan, with interest, before the end of his first term in office. When he ran for reelection (and won) in 1942, he made the same promise, even amid the increasing financial challenges of World War II.
William’s natural talents for leadership helped him to run an effective courtroom, and the larger community often called on him to apply those talents to other projects as well. In the 1940s, William devoted significant time and energy to the business community in Chester. He served as a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s industrial committee and on the Chester Budget Commission. He was also part of committees to build the shelter house at Fort Kaskaskia and to construct a new bridge over the Mississippi River at Chester. When the local Presbyterian congregation decided to build a new church, he was chairman of the building committee.
As a county judge, William was adamant that fairness was the cornerstone of his job, endeavoring to apply equal standards to every defendant and plaintiff who arrived in his courtroom. He was also particularly sensitive to the realities of juvenile offenders whose lives he could change significantly with a single decision. A profile published during his second campaign for the office noted, “Judge Juergens has taken a great interest in working out the problems of the juvenile offender and has done more than any other County Judge of Randolph County toward preventing rather than punishing child delinquency. The youth of today are the men and women of tomorrow and upon their righteous conduct depends the future.” In 1945, he was appointed as a member of a special advisory board for the Institute for Juvenile Research of the State of Illinois. He was later named by Chester’s mayor to an advisory committee to consult on juvenile delinquency solutions, and he was also involved with scouting organizations for local boys and girls.
William served as a county judge in Randolph County from 1938 until 1951. That year, at the age of 47, he submitted himself as a candidate to become a judge in the Third Judicial Circuit, which included St. Clair, Madison, Randolph, Bond, Perry, Washington, and Monroe Counties. He won the election in June 1951 and began his term just a few weeks later, starting his rotation in Madison County’s circuit court. He presided over a wide range of different cases and trials on the circuit for the next five years.
On June 7, 1956, William was nominated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to a vacant seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois, succeeding the retiring Judge Fred L. Wham. The appointment was the fulfillment of a long-held aspiration. Helen told the Southern Illinoisan that her husband “wanted the job very badly, and I’m certain he will be well pleased.” In a glowing editorial, the Belleville News-Democrat wrote that “laymen and lawyers alike” applauded Eisenhower’s decision to nominate William for the seat, adding that “in view of Judge Juergens’s outstanding record and reputation, [Senate] approval should be readily forthcoming.”
The assumption was correct. On June 21, the United States Senate unanimously voted to confirm William for the federal judgeship. He was sworn in by Judge Casper Platt in East St. Louis on June 29, in a ceremony attended by numerous attorneys and representatives of the Bar Association, as well as his wife, Helen; his son, William Jr., then a pre-med student at the University of Michigan; and his daughter and son-in-law, Jane and Don Hays. A luncheon followed at the Broadview Hotel, where William gave a speech in which he promised to be “fair and square” in his new role, following the same “prayer of ethics” that had guided him for years.
Public approval of William’s new role was high. The News-Democrat wrote, “An able, fair and experienced jurist, well-liked and universally respected, Judge William G. Juergens ascends to the Federal Bench with the full confidence and complete good wishes of the public of this district.” Remarkably, even men who had been sentenced to prison terms by William were supportive of his promotion. During a celebratory dinner at the Chester Lions Club, William was presented with a portrait of himself, drawn with colored pencils by an inmate at Menard Penitentiary, as well as an illuminated scroll signed by more than 100 prisoners. Menard’s warden, Ross Randolph, told the Belleville newspaper, “The boys at Menard recognize the judge as being a fair man.”
In his new role, William presided over courts in East St. Louis, Benton, and Cairo. He was so well respected by his colleagues that, in 1965, he was named Chief Judge of the court. But though he was increasingly successful in his professional life, he faced sorrow at home. His wife, Helen, was diagnosed the same year with lymphoma. She endured efforts to cure her cancer for another year, but she passed away in St. Louis at the age of 59 in February 1966. She was mourned by her husband, their children, their grandchildren, her siblings, and members of the church and community organizations to which she had devoted so much of her time.
William continued to focus on his federal court duties while dealing with his personal grief. His workload had grown even heavier in September 1965, with the unexpected death of Judge Casper Platt, whose responsibilities in the Eastern Illinois District he had absorbed. In the wake of Helen’s death, however, William was able to find brightness in the rekindling of an old childhood friendship. Charlotte Louise Mann, a vocal music teacher at Cleveland High School in St. Louis, had been a friend of William’s when they were schoolmates in Chester as teenagers. They crossed paths once more and found themselves falling in love. In March 1967, 62-year-old William and 60-year-old Louise were married in a small ceremony in her home in the Holly Hills neighborhood of St. Louis. After the wedding, she retired from her teaching position and moved back to Chester with her old friend and new husband.
In the summer of 1971, after a legal career that spanned more than four decades, William decided that it was time to retire from the bench. He sent a letter to President Nixon requesting that he be replaced and take on senior status. In a profile published that September, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him “no-nonsense” and noted that “he has annoyed many lawyers but won their respect for his stern refusal to brook delay and obfuscation. He has tried lawsuits with dispatch and has kept his docket clear.” His replacement, Judge James L. Foreman of Metropolis, filled the open seat in April 1972.
William’s status as a senior judge meant that he was still assigned to special cases, and he and Louise frequently traveled across the country as he filled in where and when he was needed. He presided over trials throughout the nation, in federal courtrooms from Maine to Utah and Arizona to Puerto Rico, for the next several years. His new status allowed him to have much more control over when and where he worked. Back home in Randolph County, he was on hand in Chester to conduct the official dedication ceremony for the opening of the new county courthouse in June 1975. He also delighted in officiating at wedding ceremonies in the area. But perhaps his favorite duty was presiding over naturalization ceremonies for new American citizens.
The longevity and success of William’s career as a jurist earned him numerous accolades in his later years. He was honored by his alma mater, Carthage College, with an honorary doctorate in 1970. The honorary degree was granted for his “distinctive contribution to society and the legal profession as a practicing attorney and federal judge.” He delivered the commencement address for that year’s Carthage graduates in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the college had relocated in the 1960s. In his remarks to the graduating class, he encouraged them to think critically in all avenues of life and noted, “There seems to be a crying need today for a higher type of thinking—one which is not so much concerned with amassing this world’s goods at whatever cost it must be done, one that is not concerned with the acquisition of power regardless of who suffers or who is trampled upon, or one which is not concerned with personal enjoyment and pleasure, the price of which is the destruction of character.”
The 1970 commencement address took place during the Vietnam War, and William took pains to express the importance of both the value of protest and the value of service. “Our country has gone forward because of its dissent, and many new ideas have been created because of dissent,” William stated. “This right to dissent is constitutionally guaranteed, but let us always remember that this right has been and is being secured for us through the blood and death of our citizens upon the battlefields.” In 1978, the speech was recognized for another honor: the George Washington Honor Medal Award for Public Address, bestowed by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. He traveled to Pennsylvania to accept the award, which was described by his granddaughter, Heidi Hays Thacker, as “his most treasured tribute.”
More recognition came during his retirement, including an honorary doctorate from William Woods College in 1977. In the 1980s, he was chosen to be part of a small coalition of American judges who were assigned to travel to the Soviet Union at the request of Mikhail Gorbachev to consult on changes to the Soviet judicial system. Unfortunately, William’s advancing age and increasing health problems prevented him from making the trip. On December 7, 1988, he passed away in Chester at the age of 84, leaving behind his wife, children, and grandchildren, as well as a towering professional legacy.
Tributes poured in after William’s death. In a memorial resolution for the Bar Association of the Seventh Federal Circuit, Northwestern University law professor Beverly W. Pattishall wrote, “Judge Juergens lived his long life as a devout Christian, a devoted husband and father and a contributing leader of his community. He was an accomplished jurist who served his jurisdiction ably and with dedication to the ever demanding needs for justice, wisdom and compassion.”
Perhaps the clearest and most concise summation of William’s character can be found in a letter written to the family by a fellow attorney and friend, Robert Broderick. He called William Juergens simply “a great and good man whose character showed clearly through all that he did.” William’s commitment to justice and doing the right thing helped him to climb the ranks in his profession, and the long list of his achievements serve as a challenge for all of us to follow the same set of principles in our lives.
Judge William G. Juergens was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2023.