“Hero, icon, advocate, ally, friend…” On June 4, those were the words heard again and again as dozens of friends and supporters waited to share how one legendary attorney had helped them during a time of great need when no one else would. These stories reflect the legacy of Ralla Klepak (’64), who passed away on April 25, 2019, at the age of 82.
A lawyer for more than 55 years, Ms. Klepak dedicated her career to defending the vulnerable. To many, Ms. Klepak was more than an attorney — she was their savior, especially her clients in the LGBTQ community.
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, longtime Chicago activist Rick Garcia said, “Ralla Klepak was fighting and advocating for the gay community at a time when even the gay community wasn’t fighting for ourselves.”
Born in Chicago in 1936, Ms. Klepak was raised by her parents Jack (’31) and Dolores (’33), both of whom graduated from John Marshall. As a young woman, Ms. Klepak sometimes performed as a singer in the ballroom at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. She earned undergraduate and graduate school degrees from Northwestern and taught reading and English as a Second Language before attending John Marshall as an evening student. After graduating in 1964, she immediately started her own law practice.
From day one, Ms. Klepak spent her time fighting for a “legal system that worked for everyone.” She saw the effects of rampant police raids on gay bars and gathering areas at a time when being arrested in a sweep often meant a person’s name, address and employer were published in the newspaper. She witnessed lives being ruined and maintained that the police were not enforcing the law, they were abusing it.
Ms. Klepak responded to the violence by becoming a powerhouse lawyer for the community. She represented hundreds of gay clients in entrapment and public indecency trials, and had the charges dropped time and again. It has been reported numerous times that she never lost a criminal case.
By the late 1960s, Ms. Klepak herself owned an LGBTQ bar called Togetherness, which provided a safe place for all to gather.
As the years passed, Ms. Klepak continued as one of the Chicago LGBTQ community’s strongest allies. She championed same-sex-partner adoptions and helped make it possible for surviving partners to inherit estates in the years before the legalization of gay marriage. Ms. Klepak represented clients who wanted to change birth certificates and gender markers. She defended gay servicepeople in court martial cases and provided estate planning for those dying of AIDS-related complications.
After decades of advocacy work, Ms. Klepak was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame as a “Friend of the Community,” joining John Marshall, which was also inducted in as a “Friend of the Community” in 2016 and John Marshall Professor Mark Wojcik (’86) who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
In her will, Ms. Klepak left a generous gift to John Marshall. We hope with that gift her legacy will live on for generations.