Tom Geoghegan has an exceedingly long list of good deeds to his name. This is the story of one of them. It’s the tale of how one small dog battled the entire Leviathan bureaucracy of the University of Chicago for her home, her family, and indeed, her very life. And how, amazingly enough, she won that fight — but only because her case was championed by one Thomas Howard Geoghegan.
I’ll begin at the beginning. Once upon a time, my husband and I had two dogs, Hildy, a small beagle mix, and Django, a large dog who is part German Shepherd. Hildy is a lively pup, very bright, friendly, and easy to train. She has never been aggressive and we’ve never had any serious behavioral issues with her.Django, alas, was another story. He was a sweet boy at heart, but troubled. He was restless and hyper, and had the unfortunate habit of aggressively pawing at people. In the few months we had him, we never did manage to housebreak him, and taking him out was like walking Godzilla on a leash. His tail was cut off, and we theorized he’d been abused, or used in dogfighting. We tried to train him ourselves, and we worked with our terrific vet, Tom Wake, on finding a medication that would calm him down. To this day, I sorely regret not hiring an outside trainer to work with him.Well, you can see where this is going. One day, six months or so after we adopted him, he bit the guest of a resident of our building. The bite did not break the skin or require medical attention, but still, it was unprovoked, and so obviously that raised red flags. The resident complained about this incident to our landlord, which is the University of Chicago. I was aware of the complaint, but stupidly, I assumed it wouldn’t result in anything more serious than a warning and, perhaps, restrictions on when and where Django was permitted to leave and enter the building.
Two weeks later, I was stunned to receive a hand-delivered letter from the landlord ordering us to get rid of both our dogs in ten days, or face immediate eviction! The moment I read it, I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. In the manner of many couples without children, Mr. G Spot and I dote on our dogs. They are members of the family, and an inexhaustible source of entertainment, companionship, and unconditional love. The rhythm and structure of our days is formed by the tasks we carry out to care for them: feeding them, and taking them for their morning, afternoon, and evening walks. The idea of losing them was heartbreaking.
And I have to say, I didn’t see it coming. Oh all right, I probably knew in my heart that Django was in serious trouble, but on the conscious level at least, I was in blithe denial of that fact. And I certainly never so much as imagined that they’d make us give up Hildy. After all, what she did ever do? She was a sweet little dog, an innocent bystander who was being condemned without a fair hearing, her reputation smeared because of guilt by association. The outrageous injustice of it made my blood boil.
After reading this anguish-inducing missive, the first person I called was Mr. G Spot, who was out of town. I couldn’t reach him. And then, in full panic mode, I called Tom Geoghegan. Partly that was because he’s one of our closest friends, but mainly it’s because he’s a lawyer. What I wanted from him was simply a referral for a lawyer who dealt with landlord/tenant disputes, or pet issues. But what I got from him was much, much more.
He asked me to fax the letter and our lease to his office, which I did. Then he and his legal team set to work. The person who actually did the grunt work and handled the details of the case was Tom’s wonderful associate, Mike Persoon, or “Spoon,” as everyone calls him. He was out collecting petition signatures to get Tom’s name on the ballot for this election.
Tom’s law firm sent a letter to our landlord urging that they let us keep both dogs, and offering to negotiate terms (with my husband and I agreeing to make them wear muzzles, only use certain entrances, etc.). The letter was referred to the University of Chicago legal team. There were negotiations and lots of back and forth.
Now let me interject right here, that the University of Chicago is a fearsomely powerful institution. It rules Hyde Park with an iron fist. It has remade and swallowed up entire neighborhoods. Trust me, you do not want to mess with these fuckers. Because when it comes to a community’s rights, or an individual’s rights, vs. the behemoth that is the U of C, the individual, or the community, is bound to lose. Every bloody time.
So, as you might suspect, those mofos had written the lease to within an inch of its life, and basically it allowed them to do whatever they damned please in terms of pets. Even though we technically live in a building where pets are allowed, that is considered a “privilege” which can be revoked at any time, at their discretion.
This being the case, we did not stand the ghost of a chance of keeping Django. After much soul-searching, heartache, sleepless nights, and angst-filled consultations with our vet, Dr. Wake (who btw, along with Tom and Spoon was one of the heroes of this drama, and went above and beyond, going out of his way to lobby the university to allow us to keep both dogs), we decided to give up Django, but do all in our power to keep Hildy. This was wrenching for me, and to this day Django literally haunts my guilty dreams. But we came to the conclusion that it was the least bad thing to do.
And, as a result of Tom’s agreeing to take on the case, and Spoon’s hard work and mad skillz as a negotiator, that, in the end, was what we were allowed to do. Furthermore, we got an extension of sorts for Django — we were able to keep him until we found a place for him in a no-kill shelter, which we eventually did.
I don’t know what in the world we would have done otherwise. Moving would have been unaffordably expensive and a huge hassle, and Mr. G Spot in particular was opposed to it. Placing a dog in a no-kill shelter is a difficult and time-consuming process; there are always far more animals needing placement than there are slots, especially when the economy starts to tank. The prospect of having to take Hildy and Django to the city pound to be euthanized horrified us, but it was a real possibility. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tom and Spoon may have saved both their lives.
And btw, there’s no way I could have negotiated this outcome myself. I refrained completely from communicating with the landlord about this manner, because I was so emotional about it, and I was afraid that if I tried to discuss it I’d be too tearful, or too angry. Or both.
And the kicker here? After Spoon negotiated this outcome, we asked Tom to send us a bill. And he stubbornly refused to take a dime. This in spite of the fact that the time the firm spent on this case meant fewer billable hours from paying clients. And also in spite of the fact that a small public interest firm like Tom’s tends not to be rolling in dough in the first place.
So, what is the takeaway from this story? What is the point I’m trying to make here?
Well, I think this little anecdote illustrates something important about Tom — about his values, about the way he approaches his legal practice, and about what kind of Congressman he would make.
In the matter of this little dog drama, why did Tom act the way he did? Well, it’s not because he’s dog person — he’s not really an animal person at all. But there were a couple of things going on, I think.
First of all, when it comes to capacity for empathy, Tom ranks pretty highly, and he obviously wanted to relieve my distress. Secondly, he is a stand-up guy who is there for his friends.
But it goes beyond that. Unlike so many in the elite professional class to which he belongs, Tom has a strong aversion to sucking up to rich and powerful assholes. On the contrary, his life has been all about service and helping people in need. And his innate sympathies are always with the powerless, the screwed over, the dispossessed and disenfranchised.
The underdog, if you will.
So you see, when it comes to a fight between one undersized and insignificant mutt, on the one hand? And a ginormous, filthy rich, and scary-powerful institution like the University of Chicago, on the other?
Tom’s gonna be on the side of the dog. That’s fundamental to who he is.
You can donate to Tom Geoghegan’s Congressional campaign here; volunteer here; join the two Geoghegan Facebook groups here and here; and follow Tom on Twitter here.