Colleagues, friends pay tribute to LaRue at courthouse memorial

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The William E. Steckler Ceremonial Courtroom of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was filled to the brim on Thursday as friends, family, colleagues and admirers of Magistrate Judge Denise K. LaRue gathered to honor the life and memory of the late Southern District magistrate judge.

Describing LaRue as a dedicated judge who found joy in her work, her fellow Southern District judges, staff and former colleagues from her time in private practice rose to offer recollections of LaRue, who died from cancer on Aug. 2. Even in the midst of her battle with cancer, LaRue came to work with a smile on her face and passion for her job, Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson told the packed courtroom – the same one where LaRue was sworn in as magistrate six years ago as the first black person and black woman to serve as a magistrate judge in the state.

LaRue’s peaceful personality and determination to resolve cases in the best interests of both parties enabled her to convince even the most contentious of litigants to reach a settlement, the chief judge said.

“We chose her not because she was an African-American or because she was a woman,” Magnus-Stinson said, “but because she was the mighty Denise K. LaRue.”

Thursday’s memorial service featured reflections from those whose lives LaRue had touched through work, friendship or both. John Haskin, LaRue’s former partner at what was then known as Haskin & LaRue LLP, reflected on how beloved LaRue was by her clients while she was in private practice. Sometimes, clients would send her flowers for her work, even when she lost their case, he said.

Haskin also recalled the close camaraderie he shared with LaRue during the years they worked side-by-side, sometimes seven days a week. That camaraderie continued to the very end, when Haskin was invited to visit LaRue while she was in hospice care. As she laid in her bed surrounded by cards from dozens from people she described as her “federal family,” Haskin read some of the cards aloud, bringing a smile to the face of a woman who was known for caring for others more than herself.

“They were the most beautifully, bravely written sentiments that she took so much comfort and strength from,” Haskin said.

Haskin also recalled how closely LaRue clung to her faith during her final days, even telling him that she knew God had a plan for her serious illness. Though LaRue also told Haskin she didn’t understand that plan, her pastor, Winterbourne Harrison-Jones of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, credited her willingness to trust that there was a plan for her life as evidence of her steadfast faith.

The magistrate judge’s religious faith featured prominently during Thursday’s memorial, when Harrison-Jones delivered a mini-sermon likening LaRue to the biblical figure Job. The story of Job recalls how his family and home were destroyed, yet he refused to blame God for his misfortune and instead chose to worship in the midst of pain. While reading the story of Job from the Bible, Harrison-Jones replaced Job’s name with “Denise” to show that LaRue also trusted God while she was sick.

Jillian Harrison-Jones, first lady of Witherspoon Presbyterian, then sang “If I Can Help Somebody,” a religious song meant to be a testament to LaRue’s dedication to serving others. The performance, given at the end of the emotional memorial, was met with a round of applause.

LaRue’s staff also paid tribute to their former boss, with law clerk Meg Kent telling the audience that every day in LaRue’s chambers was a good day. Kent then recalled how the magistrate judge always kept candy on-hand in her office to offer to visitors who came through, including a crystal bowl of chocolates that sat on her desk. In tribute to LaRue’s love of candy, Kent brought a bowl of chocolates into the courtroom for the audience to share in her memory.

The service concluded with resolutions from various bar associations in honor of LaRue, including the Federal, 7th Circuit, Indianapolis and Marion County bar associations. Detra Lynn Mills, president of the Marion County Bar Association, became emotional as she read the organization’s tribute to LaRue, summing up the mood of the memorial with three simple words.

“I miss her,” Mills said.

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