Topsy-Turvy: Like Daughter, Like Mother 5/12/17 05/12/17 12:32:22 AM
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Leigh Ann Retelsdorf (left) and her mom Judy share a love of the law and much more.
Topsy-Turvy: Like Daughter, Like Mother
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Ambitious, feisty, driven, tough, likeable, fierce, strong: All adjectives used by family members to describe the women of the Retelsdorf family.
Mother’s Day is Sunday and this clan will celebrate their strong mothers, and daughters and sisters and nieces.
The matriarch of the family is Judith (Judy) Retelsdorf Shepherd.
Usually we tell a story about how the children followed in their parents’ footsteps, creating a two- or three-generation dynasty. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers top the list of inspiring family leaders.
But this Mother’s Day tale is different; we’re going to turn it on its head.
Judy’s daughter, Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, a Douglas County District Court judge since 2009, was the inspiration for her mother to go to law school.
“I was working for my brother in Denver when I decided I needed another job,” Judy said. Leigh Ann (her oldest of four children) was finishing up her law degree at the University of Nebraska. “I told Leigh Ann I was thinking of going into real estate. She said, ‘That’s not for you. You’d just tell them to paint the walls if they didn’t like the house. Why don’t you go to law school?’ So I did.”
Judy was mother of four (the oldest in law school), divorced and nearly 50 years old. She remarried and her husband Ted Shepherd “helped me get through law school.” As an undergraduate she had gone to the University of Nebraska at Omaha but hadn’t graduated. Nevertheless, she enrolled in the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, which she attended for the first two years before completing her studies at Creighton in Omaha in 1988 (her degree is from DU). She was 53 years old.
It wasn’t easy finding a job, so she opened her own shop and proceeded to practice civil law, frequently domestic violence cases. “Most of my clients were poor,” she said.
Twenty-nine years later, she still takes on an occasional case, although at nearly 82, she admits to being “pretty much retired.” What does she do in her free time? “I play bridge a lot,” she laughed. In fact, the photo shoot had to wait while she played in one of her five bridge groups. She probably could have skipped bridge that day: “I had two Yarboroughs!” For the uninitiated, that term means a hand with no points, no cards over a nine.
Asked about attending law school in her fifties, she said, “Concentrating was easy. The hard part was taking what the professor said and applying it to real life. Judges have to make these [hard] decisions. I admire what Leigh Ann has done. I’m so proud of her.”
Was she surprised when Leigh Ann decided on law school?
“Not really. She was the best arguer with me of all my kids,” she recalled. “She was very convincing,” Judy laughed.
In a turnabout move, “Leigh Ann gave me some advice when I graduated: ‘No criminal law.’”
Leigh Ann served for over 20 years as a prosecutor, first in Lancaster County, then in Douglas County, before being selected by then Governor Heineman to be a district judge. “She’s a great mother too,” Judy said. Leigh Ann and her husband Pete have two children.
When asked if she and her mom had any legal “war stories,” Leigh Ann laughed and said no, but while she always tried to act professionally in court, the judges were always laughing about stories her mother had told them. “It was hard to maintain a professional reputation.”
Judy was described by her granddaughter Leigh Ellis, who is a Legal Aid attorney, as having a “heart of gold. She really cares for the community and those in need.”
Leigh continued, “She’s a role model with a sense of humor. She’s my mentor and has always been an inspiration. She’s a firecracker who does everything well. She’s got gumption; she’s brave and assertive. She fights for the underdog. I’d never want to be opposed to her in court.”
Leigh said the women of the family will celebrate Mother’s Day together – girls only. They won’t require Judy to cook, although she’s “a beast in the kitchen.”
Judy is proud of all her offspring’s (and their offspring’s) accomplishments. “Whenever I meet a friend of hers, they say, ‘I heard about you at bridge club’!”
“She’s a real bad-a--, always upstaging me!” Leigh laughed.
Leigh sums up the family’s women: “The family has a lake cabin at that I think is appropriately named – Big Mouth!”
Yes, there’s another Leigh. Actually there are several in the family, some spelling it differently. “It’s kind of our family name,” Leigh said.
Caitie and Leigh Ellis’s mother, Cindy is a medical doctor.
“She was hoping for more doctors [in the family], but she’s very thankful for our career choices. All of the women in our family are both career-driven and able to balance a family,” Caitie said. “I aspire to that as well.” Caitie graduated from UNL’s law school last Saturday. She said she’s currently looking for a job and is “open to any possibility.”
“Judy’s has always been so supportive of me and all of us (the family often refers to the matriarch as Judy). She told us to find something we are passionate about and then excel at that. … As she has done.”
Leigh Ann’s stepbrother Bill is a lawyer and currently a Douglas County Coroner. Another sibling, C.L., is a Douglas County CSI. Leigh has three siblings and several stepsiblings.
Caitie Ellis Leigh Ellis
Caitie was eager to share a story about her grandmother that she thought summed up her mentor. “She always instilled the importance of the Constitution in all of us. So, she created a homemade bumper sticker that says ‘I [heart] the Constitution.’”