Remembering Judge Jean Prendergast Rooney

Although Jean Prendergast Rooney was a woman of remarkable abilities in her profession and family life, her 15-month fight against leukemia proved to be insurmountable. Rooney, 45, a Cook County Circuit Court judge and mother of three, died on December 8, 2015 and the Beverly resident was mourned by thousands of people in the neighborhood and across the city.

Despite the lingering sorrow felt by those who loved her, they find solace in memories of a warm and loving woman who was highly respected by her peers, family and neighbors.

Rooney had served the Cook County Circuit Court for about five years and was one of 10 members of the Court’s Chancery Division, which deals with cases such as mortgage foreclosures. However, according to her husband, Tim Rooney, being a judge was just one facet of her personality. “It’s easy to talk about her because she was just a delightful person in every way,” Tim said. “Her life was much more beyond her work. She was just a positive influence. I think anyone who met her would see she really worked to be a kind and decent person, and she was a product of the South Side in the best sense.”

Jean and Tim resided in the parish of St. Barnabas Roman Catholic Church, and Rooney grew up in the parish of St. Germaine Roman Catholic Church in Oak Lawn. Jean attended Mother McAuley High School and graduated from Loyola University-Chicago.

In college, Tim said, Jean took the fast track to success. She earned her undergraduate degree in just three years, and then finished law school at Loyola in three years. Jean was focused, Tim said, but she was always ready for fun and new adventures. As part of her schoolwork, she studied in Rome. “She found a way to make life work well for her,” Tim said, “and find time to enjoy it as well.”

With her law degree in hand, Rooney’s professional career quickly took off. She served as a clerk for several judges, including Judge Mary Jane Theis, now on the Illinois Supreme Court, and the late Mary Ann McMorrow, who was also an Illinois Supreme Court justice. She also worked for about 15 years for Quinlan & Crisham, a private law firm, and was elected president of the Appellate Lawyers Association of Illinois. She was also appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court Character and Fitness Committee, which evaluates the merits of potential justices.

In 2010, Rooney was sworn in to the Cook County Circuit Court. As a judge working on mortgage foreclosure cases, she was just and empathetic, loved ones said. “She never said a bad word about anybody, ever,” said Colleen Fitzgerald, her friend since high school. “She was always fair and honest. She really listened to both sides of the story, no matter what.”

Rooney had a remarkable ability, loved ones said, to find the right balance between work and family, which allowed her to be a caring and involved mother to Timothy, 15, and twins Thomas and Colleen, 13. Fitzgerald called Rooney the best mother and most devoted wife she had ever met, describing her as “a master of being able to get it done.” “She could knock out a brief,” Fitzgerald said, “then run up to be the lunch mom.”

Even while battling leukemia, Rooney thought of others, sending Fitzgerald a birthday card in December 2014 encouraging her to “enjoy every single minute.”

Rooney’s uncle, Rich Prendergast, is a longtime attorney, and he worked closely with Rooney during her law career. He commended the way she was able to succeed professionally while also raising her children, calling her reputation and work ethic “flawless.” “Jean was regarded by her peers in the legal community, both judges and practicing lawyers alike, as among the very best,” Prendergast said.

As a mother and wife, Rooney enjoyed creating an urban garden in the family yard, Tim said, and loved going on long walks with her family at Crescent Park on 108th Place. “I don’t think her work defined her,” Tim said. “She looked at it as something she did professionally, but she really dedicated herself to being a family person.”

Rooney and her husband’s marriage was a love story that unfolded on the South Side. Both attended Loyola and met when Tim was a senior and Rooney was a sophomore. A friend encouraged Tim, of West Beverly, to date Rooney, he said, but there was a catch: that friend was also telling four other men to ask Rooney out.

Tim acted quickly, and the two began dating and often met at Keegan’s Pub, a Beverly bar now called Barney Callaghan’s. Tim was a court reporter, and both came from Irish-Catholic families, so they always had a lot to talk about.

The couple loved raising their children in Beverly, and Rooney made their home bright and happy, Tim said. When she cooked, she would often take on a French accent and become “Chef Jeannie.” When their children were toddlers and it was time to do dishes after dinner, she would turn up some music and dance at the sink. When it was bedtime, the family formed the “Nighty-Night Train,” parading through the house on the way to the bedrooms.

“She liked to be as silly as she could with the kids, to make their life more joyful,” Tim said. “She just tried to keep things as light and playful as she could because she knew there were challenges in life but it was something to be enjoyed. She was not one to take it too seriously.”

Sheila Murphy, Rooney’s longtime friend from Beverly, served as her advisor of sorts. Murphy attended law school before Rooney, and she gave her advice for school and her career. Murphy called Rooney “the best of the best.” “She was just one of the brightest people I ever met,” Murphy said. “She was gifted in all areas.”

Rooney had a steadfast temperament, Murphy said, and admirably handled the stress of working in the field of law. Murphy recommended Rooney for several positions, she said, with the utmost confidence. “She could see where the law should be,” Murphy said. “So, she was a visionary, and that was very valuable.”

Visitors would come to her office, Murphy said, and praise Rooney’s welcoming personality, saying she was “so pleasant and so nice.” “She was nice to everybody,” Murphy said. “From a professional standpoint, you can’t get any better, really.”

That compassionate personality extended to her friends, said Jen Thompson, who met Rooney during freshman year at Mother McAuley. Every conversation started with a smiling Rooney asking how the other person was and ended with her wishing her friends well.

“She was always thinking of others,” Thompson said.

Thompson was also impressed by the way Rooney was able to be dedicated to her career while providing for her family’s needs. “She was kind of a whipper-snapper,” Thompson said. “She could just do it all.”

The love for Rooney was apparent during a prayer service attended by friends and family at St. Barnabas Church five days before her death, and the love Rooney gave to others, Murphy said, is now providing comfort and strength for them as they go on with their lives.

Rooney, Murphy said, has given them with peace of mind. “I think the most redeeming quality was her love of her family,” she said, “and that family’s going to be fine because that love is going to follow them. That love is going to be with the family all of their days.”

Funeral services were held December 12, 2015 at St. Barnabas Church. Interment took place at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Curley Funeral Home handled the arrangements.

Jean Prendergast Rooney is survived by her husband, Timothy; her children, Timothy, Thomas and Colleen; her parents, Thomas and Joan (nee Curtin); her brother, Thomas; and her brothers- and sisters-in-law, Edmund III (Ann), John (Margaret), Molly (C. David) Kelly, Ellen (Andrew) Martin and Peter (Virginia); and many nieces, nephews and cousins.

In Rooney’s memory, donations may be made to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 641 W. Washington Blvd., Suite 4000, Chicago, IL 60661.

A trust fund has also been set up to assist with Rooney’s children’s educational needs. Contributions may be made to the Jean Prendergast Rooney Memorial Trust and sent to Deirdre Close, 111 W. Washington St., Suite 1100, Chicago, IL 60602.

For more information, call Close at (312) 402-5943.

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February 2016Volume 21Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)