U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow’s mother and husband were murdered by a man angry with her for dismissing his lawsuit, and now, more than two years later, she is drawing new life from her tragedy.
In an exclusive interview in Chicago with TODAY co-host Matt Lauer, Lefkow talked about the book of her mother’s poetry, “I Speak of Simple Things,” that she and her sister, Judy Humphrey Smith, have self-published.
The volume of poems their mother had written was a surprise to the sisters, as was the depth of her insight into the hard life of a farm wife battling chronic depression while raising a family in Kansas.
“I’ve been looking for resurrections,” Lefkow told Lauer. “When I was set on this course, I said, ‘I will look for resurrection.’ One of the resurrections has been this book.”
The course she set began on Feb. 28, 2005, when Lefkow returned from federal court in Chicago to find her husband, Michael Lefkow, 64, and her mother, Donna G. Humphrey, 89, brutally murdered in the basement of her home.
The killer turned out to be a Polish immigrant from Chicago, Bart Ross, who had filed a lawsuit against the medical industry, blaming it for leaving his jaw disfigured after treatment for cancer that was the result of his smoking habit.
Lefkow had dismissed his suit, and Ross, 57, snuck into Lefkow’s home looking for revenge. When he did not find the judge at home, he killed her husband and mother and fled to Wisconsin, where he killed himself when police pulled him over for an equipment violation on his car.
Lefkow, who has two daughters, both of whom have married since the murders, has stayed out of the spotlight, avoiding all television interviews until her appearance on TODAY. She has returned to the bench and has devoted her energies to lobbying for improved security for members of the judiciary, a campaign that has thus far seen no results in Congress.
The more than two years since her tragic loss have not been easy.
“It’s been very, very tough, I will tell you that,” she told Lauer. “There’s no way to minimize it. We have reestablished our home, we had two weddings in the family. My two girls have graduated. We’re going forward. But it’s been hard.”
She has described her grief as being like a ringing in her ears, a constant background noise. Lauer asked if it’s even possible for her to block it out.
“As time passes, there’s less feeling of obsession with it. We live with it — just live with it,” she said.
Her experience has not changed the way she goes about her job, she said. “I’m changed as a person. I trust that my ability to focus and to do the right thing hasn’t changed.”
In cleaning out her mother’s home in Denver, where she had moved from Kansas in retirement after the death of her husband, Lefkow and her sister found the trove of poetry. They had known that their mother loved to write; one of her prized possessions was a desk with a leather inlay on which she wrote.
“We really didn’t realize how much she had written,” said Smith. “We knew as she got older she was always writing. When we got it all together and saw what we had, we were really surprised that there was so much.”
The sisters knew of their mother’s depression, and were worried that her poetry would reflect that.
But, Lefkow said, “They weren’t as dark as I expected. Some of them are quite fun. The other thing I really loved about the poems was the communion of nature that she had — talking about hanging up the wash on apple blossom mornings fragrant from the trees my father planted.”
Lefkow and Smith see publishing the poems as a way to put a face on their mother and memorialize the lives of so many women like her, women who battled depression and hard times and kept homes and raised families.
At Lauer’s request, Lefkow read one of her mother’s poems, entitled “Widows”:
We are everywhere
We with our little perms
Our little purses,
Our careful steps
Supported by our walkers
Or our canes.
We are the survivors.
Years ago we laid our men away
We did not know it then
Our own significance