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Dan Doyle: A Writer’s Best Judgement

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He worked for the FBI during the Civil Rights era, and then worked his way up through a series of prestigious legal positions before retiring. So what’s he up to now? Paul Anthony Arco discovers this judge’s newest career.

Retired Judge Dan Doyle spends a lot of time at his computer these days, crafting plays inspired by moments in his career. (Christin Dunmire photo)

When Dan Doyle thinks back on his long legal career, he credits his late mother with getting him hooked on the profession he came to love. It was, after all, Josie Doyle who allowed her teenage son to miss school from time to time so he could spend the day with her, taking in “juicy” murder trials at the local courthouse.

“I only tell you this now because she can’t be prosecuted,” he jokes.

For Doyle, those memorable days were the start of a successful law career that spanned five decades. From FBI agent to state’s attorney to judge, Doyle did it all, with extreme professionalism and zeal.

“I enjoyed going to work every day,” says Doyle, a quiet and unassuming man. “No two days were alike. I was fortunate to have a job that I loved and that was interesting to me.”

And law, as it turns out, was the launching pad for another bold, new adventure for Doyle: writing. Some retirees savor days of rest and relaxation, but not Doyle.

Since hanging up his robe almost a decade ago, Doyle has authored two legal thrillers, yet to be published, and a successful play called Waste MisManagement, a story about a woman accused of murdering her husband and dumping his body in a landfill. “It’s a comedy, but it doesn’t sound like a comedy,” Doyle says, laughing.

The play sold out all nine performances in early 2012 at the Pec Playhouse Theatre in Pecatonica, Ill., and was recently picked up by a publisher. Now, Doyle is busy working on his next play.

“Dan constantly reinvents himself,” says Honorable 17th Circuit Judge Rosemary Collins, who was hired by Doyle as assistant state’s attorney in 1980, and played Beulah Thistlebottom, a crazy psychic, in Waste MisManagement. “He’s very gifted. He’s an inspiration to me as a writer and as a person. I respect how, after one successful career is finished, he can move right into another. Not everyone can do that.”

Doyle has always had a strong desire to succeed. The only child born to Josie and Bert Doyle, he grew up in East Peoria, Ill. Josie was a homemaker and Bert was a factory worker at Caterpillar. To earn extra money, Bert built homes on the side, with help from his wife and young son, who mixed mortar, hauled bricks and completed other tasks as assigned.

Doyle earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Illinois. Having never served in the military, Doyle decided to become an FBI special agent; he was assigned to work in the South for three years during the Civil Rights era. Doyle worked mostly on cases related to hate groups and church bombings.

Doyle is matter-of-fact when speaking about his FBI work. “It taught me respect for gathering the facts,” he says. “I always felt the FBI was very professional and competent. They’re under great constraint, especially with the terrorism situation these days.”

But Doyle longed to work in the legal system. In 1965, he moved to Rockford, after Winnebago County State’s Attorney William Nash hired him to serve as assistant state’s attorney. He left for two years to work in private practice with Dan King and John McNamara, before then-state’s attorney Philip G. Reinhard hired him to return to the state’s attorney’s office as chief of the criminal division.

Doyle credits Reinhard, now a federal judge, with helping him to advance his career. In 1976, Doyle was elected state’s attorney and served three terms, handling major cases including murders, kidnappings and home invasions.

“Dan was an extraordinary trial lawyer,” Collins says. “He was always well-prepared and very good at communicating with people. He made it easy to understand legal concepts, while conveying the emotions of the event. I learned a lot from him.”

Doyle went on to serve as a judge for 13 years, half of that time as a justice for the Illinois Appellate Court. In 2005, he went back to work for one year as a trial judge in Winnebago County, helping to ease a backload of cases before retiring for good.

Even as a judge, Doyle was preparing for a future as a writer. He taught himself to type during that time, and wrote plenty of legal decisions which, he says, “were guaranteed to put anyone to sleep.”

While colleagues encouraged Doyle to write crime novels based on real-life experiences, ultimately he decided to stick with fiction. “I can just let it flow and not worry about anything,” he says.

The first book he wrote, Dark Evidence, is about a prosecutor and his girlfriend who get drawn into the militia. “The prosecutor goes undercover inside the militia, which is planning terrorist activities,” Doyle says.

Five years ago, he wrote Almost Legal, a book about a used car salesman who is fired from his job. On his way home from a local bar, he runs off the road and into a swimming pool. Rather than hire an attorney, the salesman decides to hang out his shingle, without a law degree, and represent himself. Later, he represents an accused murderer and hilarity ensues.

Doyle contacted several agents, and while he developed a couple of promising leads, never found anyone to publish either book. “I assumed, incorrectly, that publishers would rush to publish my work because of my background,” he says. “They’re looking for previously published authors, which is a Catch-22 for someone like me, who’s never been published.”

Disappointed but undeterred, Doyle began writing plays instead. This wasn’t his first foray into theater. Years ago, he played Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird at the old Rockford Civic Theater. He also performed and wrote for the Legal Follies, a comedic musical revue starring local judges, lawyers and celebrities.

Doyle spent nearly four months writing Waste MisManagement, mostly while he was in Florida, where he and Kirby, his wife of 54 years, reside during the winter. The couple has two adult children and three grandchildren.

Doyle brought the script back to Rockford and performed a reading at a friend’s home, where 40 local theater buffs were invited to attend, including Collins. His work was a huge hit.

“He’s always been a good writer. Whenever he gave a closing argument, it was always beautifully written,” says Collins, whose bailiff, Jamie Button, directed Doyle’s play. “Writing comedy is very hard to do, but Dan has a wicked sense of humor and great timing. He’s always had that skill, but now he’s been able to transform it.”

Recently, Doyle signed a contract with Dramatic Publishing, a Woodstock, Ill.,-based company that produces plays and musicals. It’s Doyle’s dream that Waste MisManagement will eventually find its way into a national or international theater.

Doyle is currently working on another play, about a governor who’s possessed by the devil. “Any resemblance to anyone living, dead or currently serving in the penitentiary is purely coincidental,” he says with a grin. A draft of the play is currently being reviewed by the script committee at Pec Playhouse Theatre.

How far Doyle goes in the newest chapter of his life is anyone’s guess. But the retired attorney sure is enjoying the chance to let his hair down – so to speak – after all these years.

“I will only write comedy,” he says. “There’s enough tragedy in the world. I don’t need to dream up any more.”

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