Carrying a tune Lawyers bring patriotic theme to naturalizatio

Saturday, November 24, 2001

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Take a bunch of musical lawyers and what happens?

They find a way to sing state law.

That's what the Sangamon Bar Lawyers Chorus did this week when 80 immigrants became U.S. citizens at the Old State Capitol.

"We'll be singing to you a statute, or a law, but you know it as the Illinois state song," Judge Roger Holmes announced before conducting a rendition of "Illinois," which the Legislature added to the books in the 1920s.

Twice a year the crooners sing patriotic songs at Springfield's naturalization ceremony.

U.S. District Judge Richard Mills, who administers the citizenship oath, picked Holmes in 1987 to add flavor to the ceremony for the U.S. Constitution's bicentennial.

Holmes tried to explain that he was "just a drummer," not a singer, but he knew that lawyers don't say no to Judge Mills.

"We're also known as the Under-the-Threat-of-Contempt-of-Court Singers," Illinois State Bar Association lawyer Dennis Rendleman cracked.

Newcomers from 27 countries, ranging in size from China to Belize, took the oath and got a pep talk from Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill. Then the musicians rose to fill the Hall of Representatives with strains of "God Bless America," "Illinois" and "America."

Poignant moment

"We've sung these songs many times in school, but to hear them today you get a sense, a feeling that you're actually a part of it," said Tina Yi-ting Yang, 21, a Taiwanese emigre.

That was what Mills, a college thespian, wedding soloist and church choir member, was aiming for: "To hear 'God Bless America' on a day like this brings tears to your eyes."

With the nation at war, the ceremony was especially poignant. Holmes said "God Bless America" "means a lot more to us this time."

Capping the festivity, the chorus introduced "The Star-Spangled Banner" with its little-known third verse to memorialize the moment: "Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just. And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'"

The singers also perform at the periodic memorial service for recently deceased lawyers and this year sang at several worship services during the Fourth of July holiday. Nearly every facet of the Springfield judiciary is represented: judges, private practice, the state attorney general, state bar association, a federal court clerk.

Assistant State's Attorney Mark Silberman and Public Defender Brian Otwell are both basses -- and they go head to head in a trial starting Monday.

"We're singing the same part today, but wait until Monday," Silberman joked, cracking his knuckles.

Some lawyers, such as private lawyer Mark Cullen, joined in a spirit of service. "I said, 'I'm not a singer but I'll give it a try,'" he said.

The lawyers say they also appreciate sharing with immigrants the joyous culmination of years of hard work.

"To those of us who were born here, citizenship seems relatively easy," said Shawn Denney, senior counsel to the attorney general. "But we've not gone through the struggles they have."

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