Family shapes public service, launches legal career

Kilbride Family
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In addition to his strong Catholic faith and parents who instilled deep values in him, Tom Kilbride counts visits to a migrant camp in Iroquois County as an event that sparked something in him.  Accompanied by a Catholic priest, his visits as a teenager opened his eyes to poverty close to home.

“For the first time in my life, I saw families living in huts with dirt floors,” said Justice Kilbride. “Seeing living conditions like that, close to my home, opened my eyes to poverty and the need to help.”

That same teacher introduced Kilbride to Chester Ruiz, an organizer from California building support for the lettuce workers as they attempted to form a union for the first time.  The young Kilbride, then a student at Illinois State University, signed on for advocacy work to help the campaign build community support for the first-ever collective bargaining act for farm workers in California.

During his first seven years as a practicing attorney for Prairie State Legal Services’ Rock Island office, he helped low-income clients deal with domestic violence, unemployment insurance, mortgage foreclosure, and housing evictions cases.

“In law, and in many professions when you can help people, your values and faith help inform your choices,” said Kilbride.  “In my life, those early influences – visiting migrant camps in eastern Illinois, having a strong faith and amazing parents – all helped instill the values that led me to practice law.”

Justice Kilbride said it was growing up in a house led by his parents, Colleen and Leo Kilbride, that had the most effect on the formation of his values and ideals.  

His mother is 92 and living in Kankakee, while his father, Leo, passed away in 2010.  Both of his parents grew up on farms – his mom in Kinsman in Grundy County and his dad in Essex in Kankakee County – during the late 1920s and 1930s Depression Era.  Neither of his parents attended college but made it a priority to help Tom and his three siblings attend college.  “Although they weren’t able to afford college themselves, they were committed to seeing their four children be able to attend college.  They grew up in the Depression and knew that higher education was key to advancing in life with more opportunities,” said Kilbride.  

Justice Kilbride said that his parents, both long-time volunteers in the community, met in 1948 at the Streator dance hall as they danced to the tunes of Glenn Miller and the like.  “They were king and queen of the dance floor, in addition to being long-time members of the Kankakee dance club and card club,” noted Justice Kilbride. “There wasn’t anyone who met my folks that didn’t walk away a new friend.  They were very outgoing,” said Kilbride, who noted that both of his parents used to deliver food to families in need. Colleen Kilbride is “the gentle soul of our family, with an unlimited capacity for compassion for those in need,” said Justice Kilbride.  

Both of them became super volunteers on the campaign that launched him to the Supreme Court.  “When I first ran for the Supreme Court in 2000, my parents enthusiastically worked the parade route on the eastern side of the state,” said Justice Kilbride. 

Justice Kilbride’s three siblings all benefited from their parents’ insistence on attending and graduating from college as a path to success.  His older sister, who lives on a family farm, has been a public school teacher and administrator for 37 years.  His younger sister is a health care consultant, while his brother is a management consultant who has coached Benet Academy to two state high school basketball titles.

Kilbride, who said he learned the value of being fair and even-handed from his parents, tries to apply that perspective to his work on the state’s high court.  “In my early days as a legal aid attorney, earning $14,000 a year in 1981, I never could have imagined that I would someday be sitting on the state Supreme Court.  What an incredible honor and privilege,” said Kilbride.

But despite the title of Supreme Court Justice and the more than 60 awards and honors he’s received since 2000, Tom Kilbride is anchored by faith and family.  Mary, his wife of 37 years, teaches math at Augustana College.  “Mary and my three daughters, all of whom are applying their professional passion to lives of purpose (nursing, law, and, speech therapy), are really what keep me balanced and happy,” he noted.

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