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Attorney, ex-appellate clerk dies suddenly

January 1, 2008
A Fort Wayne and Indianapolis health-care law attorney who'd previously served as the governor's counsel and as state appellate clerk in the 1990s died suddenly Tuesday night.

John Okeson, 43, died at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne after suffering from a short flu-like illness during the past week; he was admitted to the hospital late Sunday or Monday, according to his legal colleagues. The county coroner's office told media that Okeson had been sick and admitted to the hospital, where staff determined he had a serious sepsis-like condition of unknown origin.

His legal colleagues say the news shocked them particularly because Okeson was known as one of the healthiest people around, running regularly and competing in triathlons and swimming.

The Fort Wayne native graduated from Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis in 1989, going to work as an associate at the Fort Wayne office of Baker & Daniels. He later left to successfully run for the statewide position of clerk of the appellate courts, which at the time was an elected position.

Current Appellate Clerk Kevin Smith said he didn't know Okeson well, but his staff pointed out that Okeson restored dignity to the office in the 1990s, uplifted morale, and gave the public the ability to trust and have confidence in the clerk's office.

"My employees saw John as a forward-thinking man, studying the functions ... and making improvements, particularly in record-keeping by streamlining the records department and saving money," Smith wrote in an e-mail. "The clerk's office feels that the people of the state of Indiana have lost one of their best and brightest."

After a single term, Okeson returned to Baker & Daniels and became a partner practicing health-care law before returning to public service in 2005 for Gov. Mitch Daniels. He served as counsel to the Family and Social Services Administration. Okeson then worked as the governor's chief legislative counsel for almost two years during which he worked on issues such as a health insurance program for the working poor and the Indiana Toll Road lease.

In October 2007, Okeson returned to private practice with Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman.

"John was an excellent lawyer with great experience in the public and private sectors, and his skill set fit well with what we do," said William Thompson with Hall Render. "He was such a joy to be around."

Despite his work in Indianapolis, though, Okeson continued living in Fort Wayne. Colleagues recalled how he'd drive back and forth repeatedly to be close to his three children.

In a statement released Wednesday, the governor said, "John Okeson taught and improved everyone around him, no more so than me. His wisdom, calmness under pressure, and the trust and good will he enjoyed on both sides of the aisle were things I'll always remember. But most of all, he was a father. All the 12- and 14-hour days he finished by driving north just to be with his kids in the morning - that's what I'll remember most."

Born Nov. 7, 1964, in Fort Wayne, he was a member of Trinity English Lutheran Church. Surviving are his son, Kale Okeson; daughters, Erin Okeson and Abbey Okeson; mother, Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Okeson; brothers, David J. (Kristie) Okeson and Paul S. (Michelle) Okeson; and former spouse, Ellen Okeson.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Trinity English Lutheran Church, 405 W. Wayne St., Fort Wayne; the funeral is 1 p.m. Saturday at the church. Memorial contributions may be made to Trinity English Lutheran Church or Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
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