I opened my law office in January 1983, two months after I received my license to practice law from the State of Illinois. I started out by renting an office from an established attorney who agreed to allow me to set up my own phone line in his office for his receptionist to answer.
He also allowed me to use his secretary to prepare legal documents in exchange for an agreed-upon hourly rate for her services. It was a great deal for me because I did not have to endure the financial burden of paying a full-time staff person and other office-related expenses.
I rented from that first lawyer until the fall of 1984. That’s when his lease expired, and he and his family moved to Colorado. I then rented an office from a group of four lawyers who had recently formed a partnership.
My agreement with the lawyers was the same as the first lawyer. I paid a flat monthly rent in exchange for an office and telephone answering, and I paid an hourly rate for the use of one of their secretaries. That relationship ended in the fall of 1986, after the four lawyers decided that they didn’t like each other anymore and terminated their partnership.
At that point in my career, I felt as though I had enough legal work and cash flow to sign a lease and rent my own office space. I ended up working out a deal with a landlord who had recently renovated an old building in downtown Peoria. The man that I rented from — I’ll call him Larry — owned several businesses and had recently purchased the building that he had remodeled. He had 10 employees who occupied a large office suite on the first floor of the building.
Larry agreed to allow me to do the same thing that I had done with the first two offices that I had rented — install my telephone system so that one phone was in the area where his receptionist answered his phones, and a telephone in the office that I was renting in another part of the building. Larry had recently hired a woman — her name was Geri Abele — who was in her mid-thirties.
She had previously worked for one of the top trial lawyers in Peoria. She had stopped working for the lawyer when she was pregnant with her first daughter. A couple of years after her daughter was born, she had a second daughter. She took care of her two daughters until they were in school, and then decided that it was time to get back into the workforce. That’s when Larry hired her to work full time for him.
Because Larry did not have enough work to keep Geri busy on a full-time basis, he offered me the opportunity to have Geri worked for me for 20 hours a week. He agreed to take care of her payroll taxes, and I agreed to pay him a set hourly rate for the time that Geri worked for me.
During the 20 hours that she worked for me, Geri sat in the reception area of my office and worked. During the 20 hours that she worked for Larry, she sat in the reception area of his office and worked for him. While she worked in his office, she continued to answer the telephone that I had set up in his office.
After about 18 months, I was at the point where I needed Geri to work for me full time. She liked the type of work that she was doing for me and preferred my office to Larry’s office. I offered her a full-time position, and she accepted on the condition that I would work everything out with Larry.
It just so happened that at that time a couple of Larry’s businesses had slowed down, and he didn’t need Geri for the 20 hours a week that she was working for him. I talked to Larry and it was obvious that he was irritated with me for “stealing” his employee, but he took it all in good stride because he realized that it was going to ultimately benefit him to have one less person on his payroll.
It was a great blessing for me that I was able to ease Geri into a full-time position with my office. When I started my law practice, I had made the Mother of God my “silent partner” and I had asked her to guide me in the operation of my law practice and career. I’ve always felt that it was my “partner” who always saw to it that I was able to find top-rate employees for my law practice.
Over the next several years, Geri took on more and more responsibility and eventually became my office manager. At one point, I had two lawyers working for me and eight other employees. Geri worked for me for a total of 26 years. She retired in 2013, at the age of 65. By then, her daughters were married and had children of their own, and Geri had made the decision that she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren.
On Wednesday, March 13, 2019, I received a text message from one of Geri’s daughters. The message said that Geri had passed away. She was 71. I had learned a few months earlier that Geri had been diagnosed with cancer that had spread through her spine and into her brain. The cancer was so advanced that treatment didn’t do her any good.
When I found out about Geri’s cancer diagnosis, I called her husband Ray and set up a time for me to stop by their house to see Geri. When I arrived at the house, Geri was sitting in the living room. When I walked over to her, she said, “Hi Harry, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be able to come into the office tomorrow.” I immediately responded, “Yes, I know, but I wish you could come to work tomorrow. We could really use your help.”
She looked as though she was wishing she could turn back the clock. She knew exactly what she was saying when she said she wasn’t going to be able to come into the office. It was her way of using humor to break the ice and make light of the fact that she was dying.
I then handed her a framed color picture of the King of Mercy. When she looked at the picture, her face lit up, and she said, “Last weekend I was looking for a picture like this — a picture which showed the heart of Jesus.” While the King of Mercy picture does not show Jesus’s heart, it does show His left hand touching His chest where His heart is located. Where He is touching, there are two rays of light streaming from his heart — a red ray and a white ray.
The red ray represents the blood that He shed for our sins and the white ray represents the salvation that He won for each of us by His death on the cross. Geri had not been able to find the picture she was looking for. She told me that the picture that I gave her was an answer to her prayers.
We visited for about 30 minutes. She was fully aware of the fact that she did not have very long to live, and she told me that she was looking forward to meeting our Lord. We talked about her family and my family. It was like old times. She, of course, had the same mannerisms and lively sense of humor that she always had. While there were a few times when she lost her train of thought, she was very much aware of what she was saying and in tune with our conversation.
I asked her if anyone had contacted her parish priest to come to her house to give her the Sacrament of the Sick, and she said no. She was an only child who had been raised Catholic. I offered to contact her priest and make the arrangements for him to come to her house. She was grateful for the offer, and I later contacted the priest and arranged to pick him up and take him to Geri’s house.
In all the years that Geri worked for me, she rarely made any mistakes. She was whip-smart, a term that is normally used to describe a person who is highly intelligent, quick-witted, and has the ability to quickly and succinctly respond to questions and situations that come up.
By the time she started working for me, she had mastered several office-related computer software programs. As a young secretary, she had learned how to take shorthand, so anytime I asked her to do something she was able to quickly write down notes of everything I said. In addition to her mastery of secretarial skills, she had strong interpersonal skills. She did great with my clients and the employees that she supervised. One of the primary reasons she was so good at dealing with other people was because she was genuinely concerned about the well-being of everyone.
She was also a fun person to be around because she was spontaneous, upbeat, enthusiastic, optimistic, generous, and warm. She generally treated everyone as a friend except for those who crossed her. She was proud of her Irish heritage and didn’t like it when someone tried to pull the wool over her eyes.
One day, after she had worked for me for several years, while I was trying to convince her about something she didn’t agree with, she suddenly blurted out, “Oh, don’t give me that Lebanese blarney!” The word “blarney” is an Irish term that means, “to charm, pleasantly flatter, or persuade.” She put the word “Lebanese” in front of the word “blarney” to add additional impact to her statement. She apparently thought that I was going way too far in trying to use my “Lebanese charm” to get her to agree on something that she wasn’t willing to agree to.
There’s an old Irish joke that I never had a chance to tell Geri: “Do you know what Irish Alzheimer’s is? It’s when you forget everything but the grudges.” If you’re offended by that joke, you shouldn’t be. I heard it from a full-blooded Irish man who was proud of the fact that he held grudges, and every Irish person I’ve ever told the joke to has laughed out loud in agreement.
There was one occasion in 1990 when I was assisting another lawyer with a lawsuit that involved the City of Peoria. The lawyer was from out of town and while he was also whip-smart, he had a habit of bullying and intimidating people when he wasn’t getting his way. Since we were working together on the case, the lawyer frequently had contact with Geri to assist in scheduling meetings and court hearings.
On one occasion, he asked Geri to take care of something for him. When he called back a few days later, she had not yet had the opportunity to handle the matter for him. He got upset with her and said, “Listen here, little lady. When I ask you to do something, I don’t want you making any excuses as to why you didn’t get it done. You need to just hop to it and get it done.”
In her own professional way, Geri made it clear to the attorney that she had other things of higher priority and that he had nothing to worry about. She told him that she would eventually get the task done without jeopardizing any of his plans.
I was not in the office when Geri talked to the attorney, but when I returned, she said, “No man talks to me that way! He has no idea who he’s dealing with!” From then on, anytime the attorney called or stopped by the office, while Geri behaved professionally in his presence, she was no longer willing to accommodate him in the same way that he had become accustomed to.
Years later, the “little (Irish) lady” still bristled every time she heard his name. And yes, it was okay with me that she held a grudge against him.
If Geri had any weakness, it was that when I was critical of something she had done (which was not very often), she took the criticism extremely personal, which caused her to sometimes ignore and attempt to escape from the situation rather than to face it head-on. I think that one of the reasons for this was because she had such high expectations of herself that when she was criticized, she tended to be too hard on herself and would then do what she could do to avoid discussing the matter any further.
Geri had a tremendous love for life, her family, and her friends. Her two daughters worked for my law firm while they were in high school and college. They were model employees who minded their own business and were always well-dressed and well-behaved. My six daughters also worked for my law firm while they were in high school and college. Geri was the first supervisor each of them had as paid employees, and they benefited greatly from her experience, wisdom, and kindness.
I’m sharing Geri’s life with you because I wanted to honor her and remind myself of what a great blessing she was to me, my employees, my children, and my clients. If I could pick 25 people that I’ve known throughout my life who could live healthy lives to the age of 150, Geri would be one of them. Why? Because she was down to earth, generous, kind, warmhearted, and had a tremendous love for life. The world would be a much better place if there were more people like Geri Abele.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her…