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posted: 7/1/2011 3:00 AM

Church leader perfect fit as jury forewoman

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For a short time, she was known to the world as Juror No. 146, forewoman of the jury that convicted former governor Rod Blagojevich of a boatload of criminal charges. In my flippant shorthand in an internal memo, I referred to her as the Church Lady.

But the more we learn about Connie Wilson, the more there is to like. She brought to the forewoman's job a perfect blend of Midwestern work ethic, faith, patience and people skills to oversee a jury that, by all accounts, bonded to an unparalleled degree.

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Marni Pyke, our transportation writer who was pressed into service with others to interview the jurors after their historic verdict, lamented that there was a good back story of Wilson's journey to her position of prominence that time and circumstance didn't afford us the luxury of telling that day.

I am only too happy to tell the rest of the story. I gave her a call Thursday morning and learned I was only her 31st interviewer.

The 56-year-old Wilson put in her retirement notice from Holy Spirit Catholic Community Church in Naperville only days before her federal jury summons. "God definitely has a sense of humor," was her immediate reaction.

Jurors aren't told what trials they'll be assigned to, of course, but Wilson knew there were two high-profile federal cases in the works: Blagojevich and the trial of Tahawwur Hussain Rana, charged in the Mumbai terrorist attack.

Wilson, despite her obvious leadership skills, "didn't raise my hand" when someone asked who wanted to head the jury. In fact, when another juror suggested Wilson, "I wanted to kick her under the table."

But she didn't shirk the job. In fact, in reflection, much of what has gone on in her life probably made her an ideal candidate. She grew up on a farm, where all the kids -- boys and girls -- were expected to pull their weight. "There were no jobs that were hands off," Wilson recalls. She never noticed that the family lived below the poverty line; wearing her brother's hand-me-down jeans was just accepted.

This upbringing shaped her work ethic and "gave me a foundation." And perhaps it explains why Wilson and other jurors were taken aback when prosecutors gave a power point presentation detailing the Blagojeviches astronomical clothing budget. "How do you possibly spend that much on clothes?" Wilson and the other jurors wondered.

Wilson's church work also served her well in running a jury. As music and liturgy director at Holy Spirit, she worked with about 600 volunteers at the 3,600-family church, She says people volunteer for a wide variety of reasons, so their personal sense of fulfillment and growth is an issue -- as is dealing with an array of schedules and other pressing needs. Jurors aren't volunteers, but many of the same leadership skills Wilson honed in the church were helpful in serving as forewoman.

Turns out, Wilson couldn't have asked for a lower-maintenance group of people. And she's bemused that some thought the almost exclusively female jury would be "a giddy bunch of schoolgirls."

They weren't giddy, but they weren't without compassion. Several jurors acknowledged that knowing what a guilty verdict would do to Blagojevich's family tugged at their heartstrings. But the group didn't flinch, voting for conviction on 17 of the 20 counts -- a decision some speculate could send the former governor to prison for 10 years or more.

As I thanked Connie Wilson for her time, she mentioned that the media, almost to a person, had been "respectful" to her and the other jurors.

The respect, I should say, is mutual.

jdavis@dailyherald.com

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