Established in 1911
Early on the evening of October 15, 1911, the founding fathers of the Bohemian Lawyers' Association of Chicago (BLA) gathered at Libuce Hall, a nightclub and meeting place well known to the Czech community and located at 2039 West Roosevelt Road. In a series of swift and unanimous actions, they established the foundation for the BLA, adopting by-laws, electing officers, and naming their organization the “Chicago Bohemian Bar Association.” Their most difficult decisions came when they faced monetary issues. After some discussion, they agreed to pay their new treasurer, Frank Posvic, the sum of $4.95 to reimburse him for his investment in “stationary, stamps, etc.” Was the vote unanimous? BLA archives are silent on the issue. According to inflation indices maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor, the $4.95 expenditure in 1911 would be $115 today, one hundred years later. It is easy to see why they deliberated carefully. In another unrecorded vote, they established an “initiation fee” of $5.
By the time they left Libuce Hall (now a parking lot adjacent to the FBI’s Chicago headquarters) on that historic evening, they had embarked on an ambitious schedule of meetings and activities. The first president was Charles B. Pavlicek. Other officers included first vice president Charles A. Chruan, second vice president Otto Kerner (later Illinois Attorney General and a justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals and the father of Gov. Otto Kerner), and secretary Jaroslav J. Viterna. The first chair of the judiciary committee was Jerome J. Cermak (no relation to Mayor Anton Cermak)
Only three weeks after the first meeting, the charter members met to re-name their organization. Although BLA archives offer no hint of the rationale for the change of name, it appears that the membership wanted to broaden the base of their association beyond Chicago. The minutes describe the discussion as “earnest.” By eliminating Chicago as the first word of the new group’s name, it was hoped that the group’s membership would expand into Cicero and Berwyn and other communities in Illinois. Installing “Bohemian” as the first word and moving Chicago to the last word of the name, they decided, would accomplish their goal of broadening their membership base. The group’s meetings in these early years, according to BLA records, included both dinner meetings “to promote sociability and good fellowship” and Saturday morning meetings in the office of Probate Clerk John A. Cervenka. The Saturday sessions were the advent of the BLA’s long association with the probate courts of Cook County. Many of the dinner meetings featured guest speakers who, according to BLA records, spoke on subjects “that were timely and prevelant (sic) to the legal profession.”
In the group’s second year, it accepted an invitation to move its meetings to Ceska Beseda, a Czech clubhouse then located near the intersection of Douglas Park Boulevard and Lawndale Avenue. It was a popular choice, and, at the conclusion of the meetings, members enjoyed late night card games and slot machines in the club’s basement.
The Annual Banquet
An annual banquet soon became a centerpiece of the BLA calendar. After some discussions at a series of meetings, the BLA decided that a member “might be accompanied by his wife or his lady friend, it being the consensus of opinion that ladies should be present if they wished to attend.” The charge for the early banquets was $2. The banquets included lengthy programs. The 1913 gala featured lectures on new rules of joint tenancy, changes in the law of domestic relations, new legislation on corporations, banking and lending practices, and an address from then Alderman Otto Kerner, Sr. The final highlights of the evening were an address from Harold W. Jirka who “roasted and toasted the ladies to grand perfection” and an address from Joseph Smejkal “delivered in Bohemian.” The evening was a “grand success,” according to a report found in the BLA archives. “Songs were sung, and very patriotic, jolly, and gay feeling was manifested . . . and brought us into closer relation than ever before.”
Revival in the twenties
Soon after the 1913 gala, however, the association fell into 13 years of inactivity. As the world was caught in the throes of World War I and Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Garrigue Masaryk were forming the nation of Czechoslovakia, the BLA languished with only occasional meetings of its Board of Managing Directors. Joseph C. Pisha served as president from 1913 to 1927, although his responsibilities were minimal. Although records of the period are scarce, it is clear that the organization resumed an active schedule of meetings and activities in the late ‘twenties, meeting at Ceska Beseda, which also came to be known as Club Bohemia. In October of 1936, the BLA celebrated its 25th anniversary with a dinner dance in the Red Lacquer Room of the Palmer House. Tickets for the gala were $4. The committee in charge of the event included Vernon Tittle, Fred C. Cuchna, Joesph E. Serhant, Frank T. Sedlacek, and Marie Mazac. Mazac’s participation marked the first time in BLA history that a woman was named to any position of responsibility. The monthly meetings during this period included the usual presentations on technical aspects of the law, but at one meeeting in 1937, a speaker named Howard Janousek offered his thought on “Russia and the Bolsheviks between 1916 and 1922.”
In the late ‘thirties, the group fought the establishment of legal clinics and “low cost service plant” advocated by the notorious National Lawyers Guild with support from the Chicago Bar Assn. In a unanimously passed resolution, the group declared that its “disapproval” of these programs as “unprofessional and unethical.” One of the clinics, the records showed, was to be opened “on the West Side in the Bohemian district” of Chicago. When the legal clinics were abandoned and the CBA began to support a service that would refer business to neighborhood lawyers, the BLA was wary but supportive. The group formed a committee to observe whether the referral service would “attract substantial numbers of possible clients of members of the BLA.”
In a prescient action, the BLA in 1939 condemned the Nazi Germany takeover of the Czech lands and passed a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to seize all “property, assets, and credits” of Germany. The resolution declared that the territories and assets of Czechs and Slovaks “have been annexed by Germany under conditions and methods which are not consonant with the usual forms of international law and order and under circumstances which the people of the United States deplore and condemn.”
For reasons not described in BLA records, the group in 1939 also made a “pilgrimage” to Milwaukee to visit a probate judge named Isaac Karel. It was a men-only trip, the records show, “on account of its professional nature.” When Ceska Beseda sold its building, the group began meeting at the Old Prague Restaurant. It later moved to The Dumpling House and then to Klas Restaurant.
Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration
The next major BLA event documented in the archives was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the group’s founding. The $10 gala in October of 1961 at the Illinois Athletic Club featured music from Frank Kouba and his “Gay Bohemians” and an address from then Gov. Otto Kerner. Exhorting the group to support reforms in the Illinois judiciary, Kerner reminded the BLA membership that his father had been a charter member and that the BLA was “of particular interest to me.” The reforms included expanding the Cook County judges on the Illinois Supreme Court from one to three, a new criminal code, and a new commercial code.
Charter members honored at the golden anniversary were Judge Frank H. Bicek, George A. Basta, Charles A. Chruan, Joseph C. Pisha, John O. Hruby, James Storkan, John W. Jedlan, Joseph Z. Klenha, Jerry Viterna, Frank J. Mancl, Otto F. Ring, Alexander Kratky, and Ladimir F. Moudry. The committee, which included Stanley D. Loula, also made a special presentation to Rose Kerner, the widow of the first Otto Kerner and the mother of the governor. One of the mainstays of the organization in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies was Liberty Dvorak. Although she never served as president, she was the group’s most valuable player and publicist, ensuring that every meeting was reported in the press and attempting to maintain the BLA’s records. In October of 1986, again under the leadership of the aforementioned Stanley D. Loula, the group celebrated its 75th anniversary at the Drake Oak Brook. The gala feature Bill Krasovec’s “Strolling Musicians” and a distinguished service award to Illinois Appellate Justice James J. Mejda. The featured speaker was Justice Dan Ward of the Illinois Supreme Court.
Return of the Free Market
Shortly after Velvet Revolution and the re-establishment of freedom and the market economy in the Czech Republic, the BLA invited Prof. JUDr. Vojtech Cepl to a monthly meeting. A leader of the dissidents during the years of Soviet rule, Cepl was one of the draftsmen of the new constitution and became a justice of the nation’s Constitutional Court. His inspiring description of the young nation’s struggle to re-establish the rule of law prompted Michael Seng, a professor at The John Marshall Law School (JMLS) and a member of the BLA, to visit Prague and Brno in 1993 and to establish a Czech-American exchange program. Lawyers and judges from the U.S. have visited the Czech Republic for 19 years, offering lectures on a broad range of issues and building mutually beneficial relationships with Czech judges and lawyers. In addition to the American visits to the Czech Republic, Seng’s program has brought 21 Czech and Slovak students from the Masaryk Faculty of Law in Brno to JMLS for a semester of study. These students, as they matured and prospered, have become pillars of the Czech legal establishment. A few years after the establishment of the JMLS Czech-American exchange program, the BLA initiated an ambitious scholarship program under the leadership of members Joseph Vosicky and Mark Becker for law students of Czech, Slovak, Silesian, Ruthenian, and Moravian backgrounds. It has been a great success. Raising money from members’ donations, the BLA scholarship program has awarded more than $240,000 in grants to 110 students.
Preserving heritage in the new millenium
Early in the new millennium, the BLA broadened the membership provisions of its by-laws to provide for associate members and law student members. Associate membership is open to lawyers who, while not of Czech or Slovak background, have an interest in the culture and heritage of the Czech Republic or Slovakia. With monthly meetings and presentations on the law and on Czech culture, the BLA continues on the path established at the first meeting over 100 years ago. The meetings feature dinners of roast pork, dumplings and sauerkraut. There are conversations about the history of the BLA, stories of Pilsen and Cermak Road, recollections of savings and loans and bakeries, and descriptions of golden Prague and Czech villages. Bridging gaps of time and of language, the lawyers of the BLA preserve and nurture their heritage just as their founding fathers wanted them to do.