George B. Collins never let the heat of legal battle get in the way of his old-fashioned, courteous manner.
“George was the absolute gentleman, always,” said Collins’ law partner, Adrian M. Vuckovich. “And he also had the best sense of humor.”
That humor, Vuckovich said, was usually directed at Collins and not at others.
“He would never talk about a case where he was successful,” Vuckovich said. “He hated to lose, but he could make fun of it.”
Collins died Friday at his home in Chicago. He was 85.
“The idea of not having my friend in the world is unbelievable to me,” Vuckovich said.
Collins was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1931 and grew up in Fordyce, Ark.
Although he did not complete high school, Collins graduated from Arkansas A&M College in 1952 with an undergraduate degree in forestry and from the University of Arkansas Law School in 1954 with an LL.B.
Collins had already been admitted to the Arkansas bar when he completed law school. He had passed the state bar exam in 1953.
After practicing briefly in Arkansas — his first case involving a dispute with a dry cleaner that had been given a pair of blue pants to clean and returned them green — Collins moved to Chicago.
He taught legal writing at Northwestern University School of Law and clerked for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman.
Collins was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1955 and worked with William T. Kirby as an associate.
In 1956, he founded the law firm now named Collins, Bargione & Vuckovich.
He tried his last case, a disciplinary action before the Illinois Courts Commission, in February.
Over more than six decades, Collins took on a variety of civil and criminal cases in courts and administrative agencies across the U.S. and overseas. His clients included banks, schools, businesses and individuals.
Collins’ friends and colleagues cited his work in professional disciplinary cases as among the reasons he was so widely respected.
Collins represented numerous clients before the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and the Illinois Courts Commission over the years.
“George was legendary as a lawyer’s lawyer,” said Daniel M. Kotin, the president of The Chicago Bar Association and a partner with Tomasik, Kotin, Kasserman LLC.
“He was one of the most sought-after lawyers by other lawyers when they got in trouble.”
ARDC Deputy Administrator and Chief Counsel James J. Grogan said Collins was a “giant.”
Grogan said Collins “was probably the most prolific” lawyer in terms of the number of cases he handled before the ARDC.
But Collins’ skills weren’t limited to trying disciplinary matters, Grogan said.
“He was a magnificent practitioner,” he said. “He could do it all.”
Theresa M. Gronkiewicz opposed Collins in many cases when she was with the ARDC.
She later joined Collins’ firm. In 2012, she joined the American Bar Association as deputy regulation counsel for the Center for Professional Responsibility.
“He was considered the advisor, the go-to person when you had an ethics issue,” Gronkiewicz said.
She said Collins also was “an incredible mentor” to other lawyers.
Law partner Christopher Bargione said Collins “was the definition of ‘lawyer.’”
“It was my honor and privilege to know him and to have him as a mentor, partner and friend,” he said in a statement.
Clients Collins represented in criminal cases included several judges and lawyers caught up in Operation Greylord. The federal bribery investigation into the Cook County Circuit Court led to the convictions of nearly 100 judges, attorneys and court personnel for case fixing.
Collins also represented Jim Guy Tucker, who resigned as Arkansas’ governor in 1996 following his conviction in federal court in Little Rock on two of seven counts stemming from the Whitewater investigation.
Although Tucker faced possible prison time, Collins successfully argued his client’s poor health called for probation. Tucker suffers from congenital liver problems that required him to undergo a transplant in 1996.
Collins’ practice brought him into contact with people from all walks of life, from alleged gangsters to a member of the highest court in the land.
In 1998, then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens testified before an ARDC Hearing Board panel in Chicago as a character witness on behalf of a Collins client.
The panel later recommended dropping the charges even though the client had falsely stated his client was of sound mind and memory when she signed her will. It determined the motive for the lawyer’s misconduct was to effectuate his client’s interests and to protect her estate from a fraudulent will.
Collins was among the recipients last month of the CBA’s Justice John Paul Stevens Award, which honors Chicago attorneys and judges who have shown the same public service and integrity Stevens showed in his legal career.
In accepting the award, Collins did not talk about himself, his law partners said, but focused his remarks on Stevens.
Friends and colleagues said Collins always focused on others.
Collins fought hard for his clients, but never stepped over the line, Kotin said.
“He was one of the greatest gentlemen that I ever met as a practicing lawyer,” he said.
“If all of us could conduct ourselves and practice law as George did, I think we could have a much more amiable, cooperative, kinder and nicer profession.”
A longtime friend, Lawrence Wolf Levin of Law Offices of Lawrence Wolf Levin, gave the same take on Collins.
Collins was a “gentle, kind, understanding individual,” Levin said.
He said Collins also was an “intellectually honest” man “who always did the right thing.”
Collins traveled widely in Europe, Russia, Africa and the Middle East.
He met his wife, Paula, through his work for the South African government. Paula Collins is an Afrikaner, a South African of Dutch descent.
The couple’s daughter, Maraika, was admitted to the Illinois bar in 2008. She is now practicing law in Switzerland.
Their son, Paul, recently passed the Illinois bar exam.
Collins had three other sons from a previous marriage — Leighton, Burton and Larry.
He also is survived by a brother, Richard.
Funeral services will be private. A memorial service will be scheduled later.
The family asked that donations be made to Saint Ignatius College Prep’s scholarship fund in lieu of flowers.