Lunch with Marjorie: Following in grandfather's footsteps

I met Thomas Ruud at a Business Networking International group in Rockford where I was struck with his sense of humor—not an impression I often get from lawyers. He was telling his fellow chapter members that his door prize was in a “prize vault” at his office.

“It’s hard for me to bring my vault to the meeting,” he joked with me. “It’s nice when people come out because then they can see my office, and they can see me, and we have a chance to chat.”

“You’re building relationships.”

“That’s what it’s about.”

We lunched at Rockford Country Club, ahead of the crowd, enjoying the beautiful river view at a quiet table.

“Do you see yourself being in a helping profession?”

“Thank you for asking that. Some people ask me what I do. I’ll say, ‘I help people.’ When an attorney says that, people smile.”

“It sounds like a true motivation for you.”

“I think so, and probably to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather.”

His grandparents were first generation Americans—from Norway. His grandfather was his mentor.

“We would talk a lot. He always understood what was going on…was always analytical…had some definite views about our society. You asked me whether people are more crooked now than 50 years ago. I said no, because I heard from my grandfather how some big corporations were abusing people and the environment…bending and breaking the law. He saw big corporations—chiselers he would call them—just breaking the law.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Tom went to Rockford College, where he met his wife, then earned a degree from Drake University Law School in Des Moines. It didn’t take long to make Rockford his family’s home.

“It seemed like Chicago was always a fight to get to wherever you wanted to go. The traffic during rush hour was just horrible. I would spend a couple of hours of my day traveling, going to and from work. Here in Rockford, you’re home in 10 minutes.”

“There’re a lot of jokes about attorneys. People don’t like lawyers. How do you feel about that severe humor?” I asked.

“My clients like me. People should like their own attorney. Hopefully, they’re not telling jokes about their own attorney.”

He thinks most attorneys, especially in Rockford, are reliable and don’t deserve the jokes.

“But the humor arose because there are some attorneys out there, and you’ve got them in every community, that, maybe, deserve that type of humor,” he said.

A clattering of dishes disturbed our peaceful chat as others began arriving.

“Tell me your most exciting case?”

“I represented a farmer…his cattle had gotten out…and his neighbor alleged that he was injured as a result of that.”

“Cows hurt people?”

“They run, jump, and this guy alleged…this cow ran into him, and he (fell off his ATV) and punctured a lung. No doubt he was injured. But we had another view. It was my very first jury trial. I was very nervous. In Illinois, if you’re injured by somebody’s cattle, and they know they’re out, you’re responsible. There is no question about whether you’re negligent or not. They’re your cattle, and they were out. You’re responsible. They were our cattle; we knew they were out. But we really disputed about whether they caused any injury.”

The trial lasted days. The jury held Tom’s client not guilty.

“My client said, ‘Tom, you don’t know how much this means to me.’”

Every day, his client’s neighbor had been telling people in town that this man’s cow had hurt him.

“Another thing that was kind of cool,” Tom related, was that a Winnebago County judge heard from a judge in Carroll County that Tom was the best trial attorney he’d seen in years.

“I felt very good.”

Tom and his family now live on a farm outside of Rockford.

“Do you spend time mentoring your two sons the way your grandfather mentored you?”

“Absolutely. It’s ebb and flow. I go through periods where I work late. You do what has to be done. That’s what being a professional is. But I take time.”

“Does work define you?”

“I hope not…my work…my family…my farm. I like to laugh…with my family. I enjoy my kids…working with my kids…getting my son out there to help me build fences.”

“Farms help you do that.”

“You bet they do.”

He got animated talking about a memorable day on the farm, fishing with his 15-year-old.

“Are you able to play, forget work?”

“I’m getting better at it. It’s true. The first few years I worked and didn’t take any vacations, just worked. I’ll tell you what. Life. It’s not good to do that.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the June 1-7, 2005, issue

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