Cook County (Ill.) Circuit Court
Attorney for Simon Wiesenthal
Wilbur Wright College, IL
By Evelyn L. Kent
For a man who helped hunt Nazi war criminals and who sits on a bench, Cook County Circuit Court Judge C. Gerald Bender doesn’t use the word justice much. He talks more about opportunity.
Opportunities to put kids back with whole families and to help heal wounds. Opportunities to steer young adults toward a good, accessible education like the one he had at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago.
He started at Wilbur Wright directly out of high school. His experience was the type many have: he wrestled for the school, went to classes, worked after school and completely unexpectedly enjoyed his humanities classes.
Turns out those classes came in very handy when Judge Bender was a systems salesman. He charmed his way into a sale or two by complimenting customers on the art hanging over the sofa. Other knowledge as well as the love of education he gained at Wilbur Wright were as useful in getting him through law school while he worked full time and raised a family. “I took from Wilbur Wright that I had the ability to learn college level materials. I took away confidence,” Judge Bender said.
It was a good life but sitting in the back of his mind was the knowledge of heartbreak. As a young child, Judge Bender came home from school to see his father and uncles sitting Shiva for family members killed in the Holocaust. He was to learn later that they were “buried alive in a forest with about 7,000 other people,” Judge Bender said. “A farmer in Poland said that his father had told him that the ground was jumping for days.”
It is not an image that leaves one easily. One day, Bender found an opportunity to address the wrong. He met Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal at a dinner party and offered to be help him. Wiesenthal accepted, and asked Judge Bender to be his attorney. For 20 years Judge Bender “helped him look for people,” he said. “From time to time I’d get leads,” he said. He’d track those leads down and let Wiesenthal know if they led to something more.
“He had a network of people all over the world. They knew what he wanted, and they would help him. He wanted the Nazis tried in court.”
Wiesenthal, like Judge Bender, loved children and thought that the key to eliminating hatred was in reaching them. Today Judge Bender indulges a habit of asking young adults if they go to school so he can encourage them in the pursuit. He also works very hard to help keep children in healthy environments. “I like being in my division, which is Domestic Relations, because I think I can serve the public the most. The family is the most important entity,” Bender said.
He spends a lot of time telling divorcing parents the importance of maintaining a sense of family in some way. “It gives me an opportunity to serve the public to a real deep degree.”
Judge Bender sums up his response to the good, the bad and the divorcing with, “I never lose hope.”