H. Joseph Gitlin
H. Joseph Gitlin

The attorney who literally wrote the book on divorce law in Illinois died Friday at the age of 84.

H. Joseph Gitlin, author of “Gitlin on Divorce: A Guide to Illinois Matrimonial Law,” had retired from the legal practice earlier this year.

In his self-written obituary statement, the prominent Woodstock figure wrote that he loved music, art, literature, writing and reading and had a passion for the wit and wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. He wrote that bow ties, colorful silk pocket squares and linen handkerchiefs became his trademarks, whether in court or his law office.

Gitlin was a “giant,” according to Donald C. Schiller, a partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP.

Schiller met Gitlin about 45 years ago when they were both on a Continuing Legal Education program. Schiller said he was impressed and that the two became friends immediately.

“Joe was a gentleman and very scholarly,” Schiller said. “He was proud to be a lawyer, and he set a tone that showed the respect he had for the profession.”

He was a laureate of the Illinois State Bar Association, a fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a diplomat of the American College of Family Trial Lawyers, a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the organization’s 2006 Berger Award recipient and one of 30 original members of the Matrimonial Network better known as “The Dirty 30.”

The invitation-only group of matrimonial lawyers meets once a year for about three days and doesn’t discuss law, according to Len Dubin, an attorney in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, who knew Gitlin for about 50 years through the ABA.

Dubin said Gitlin was a forward thinker, a leader in the bar and “just a marvelous, marvelous person.”

Gitlin founded and chaired the ABA Laws of Reproduction and Genetics Committees and chaired the ABA Surrogacy Committee during the New Jersey Supreme Court case In re Baby M, the first major American court ruling on the validation of surrogacy. He also founded the Illinois State Bar Association Task Force on Genetics and Human Reproduction.

In addition to “Gitlin on Divorce,” which he updated yearly after its first publication in 1990, Gitlin authored Illinois’ first Continuing Legal Education work on adoption and the book “Adoption: An Attorney’s Guide to Helping Adoptive Parents” and wrote for national and Illinois law journals, including more than 30 years worth of columns for the Daily Law Bulletin.

“That’s clearly a labor of love,” said son Gunnar J. Gitlin, owner of Gitlin Law Firm P.C. in Woodstock.

Gitlin served in the Army from 1954 to 1956 as a psychiatric social worker after the Korean War. He also served as a group worker at Association House, a Chicago settlement house, and a community worker for the Institute of Juvenile Research in Chicago, where he helped coordinate a study of juvenile gangs in Chicago’s Near West Side.

He moved to Woodstock in 1959 and was the city’s mayor from 1973 to 1977. He helped restore the Woodstock Opera House and was also a city councilman, a member of the Woodstock School Board, president of the Mental Health Center for McHenry County, founder of the McHenry County Family Services Agency, a board member of the Mount Hope Methodist Church in Johnsburg, chair of the board of the First United Methodist Church of Woodstock and a delegate to the 1980 Republican National Convention.

Herbert H. Franks, senior partner at Franks Gerkin & McKenna P.C. in Marengo who became an attorney at the same time as Gitlin, said Gitlin wrote him a long and detailed letter with suggestions when Franks became ISBA president in 2000. Franks kept it and said Gitlin just had the sense of what to do as a leader.

Franks said Gitlin wrote him another helpful letter of advice after Franks had a heart attack.

“It was a loving thing to do, and he was a loving man,” Franks said. “He really was a remarkably nice human being.”

Both Gitlin’s children, Gunnar Gitlin and Laura J. Gitlin Petlak, became divorce lawyers.

“My father promoted the practice of law as a noble, honorable cause,” Gunnar Gitlin said.

Gitlin is survived by his wife Paulette, son Gunnar and stepchildren Jessica (Michael) Levins, Frank (Jen Consalvo) Gruber and Jack Vrett (Rose Marie) as well as his sister Vera, brother Emmanuel (Lydia), grandchildren Alisa, Hannah and Miriam, stepgrandchildren Beverly, Charlie and Isla Breeze and great grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

He was preceded in death by his first wife, Val Johnson Gitlin, his daughter Laura, his parents Clara Gitlin and Rev. M. H. Gitlin, his sister Fania and his brother Leon.

Gitlin also wrote that he was often telling jokes. Paulette Gitlin said he was a great joker, even on the day before he died.

There’s a joke he had repeated before about a man who had just been hit by a car lying in the street. Somebody rushes up to him and asks, “Are you comfortable?” The man says, “I make a living.”

Paulette Gitlin happened to ask her husband that same question — “Are you comfortable?” — as Gitlin lay in the hospital.

“He looked up and he says, ‘I make a living,’” she said.

Services will be held Dec. 14 at 1 a.m. at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, 503 W. Jackson St. in Woodstock. A reception at Bull Valley Golf Club at 1311 Club Road in Woodstock will follow. Both will be open to the public.

Memorials in his name may be made to the Woodstock Fine Arts Association at P.O. Box 225 in Woodstock.