We sit on the runway at O’Hare awaiting takeoff, Madison our destination. I always try to break the ice with my seatmates. Turning to the woman, hair as gray as mine, I ask if she’s going home.

Yes, she is, and am I doing the same?

I tell her I’m on vacation, and she laughs. “Why on earth would you come in winter?” she asks.

I say I like to come at this time of year, to see the snow, remember those days back in school, the good ones.

It turns out she attended UW Madison, too, first for her BA, and then to earn her law degree there as well.

She looks the right age to have done so, so I ask if she’d ever crossed paths with Jim Doyle, the Dane County prosecutor at that time when I was there, then state attorney general, and finally governor.

Yes, she had, a long time ago. She met with him not as a lawyer, not in court, but to discuss her brother’s case, one of Doyle’s office’s current cases at the time.

He’d had a troubled childhood, and all that Doyle knew was how this was true in terms of his breaking the law, but she wanted Doyle also to know more details than had come out in court about beatings from his father that might have caused brain damage early in his life.

“He listened very patiently,” she says, “thanked me for the information, and said he would take that into consideration for recommended sentencing.”

She pauses, her eyes watering, then tells me that her brother had received fifteen years, much less than he might have but still too harsh, she thought, and after losing an appeal where that further information had been introduced, her brother spent his last few years in prison before dying there.

“It’s what spurred me to go to law school,” she says, “because I wanted to help people like my brother.”

We’re up in the air by now, and she asks me why I asked about Doyle.

I tell her that I used to work at a record store in West Towne Mall, and that I’d caught a young man shoplifting.

“It was the worst fight I’ve ever had in my life,” I tell her.  “He was in his early twenties, approximately my age. We were rolling around on the mall floor, and he was hitting me with one of our steel in-dash cassette players he’d tried to hide under his jacket.”

Although it had seemed like a minor case to me, for some reason I’d been summoned to discuss what had happened with Doyle himself. He’d asked me to recount the incident, give him all the details as best I could remember.

“I couldn’t imagine,” I say, “why he would bother himself with gathering information about a case that seemed so minor.”

“Perhaps,” she says, “that young man had been in a great deal of trouble in the past, and Doyle was trying to determine a recommendation for sentencing.”

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