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Francis J. Higgins, lawyer with a ‘dominant, overpowering intellect,’ dead at 81

Frank Higgins worked for more than 50 years as a litigator at the law firm now known as K&L Gates.

Frank Higgins worked for more than 50 years as a litigator at the law firm now known as K&L Gates. | Provided photo

Francis J. “Frank” Higgins went from being valedictorian at Fenwick High School in Oak Park to straight-A student at the College of the Holy Cross to Harvard Law School.

Then, for more than half a century, he was a litigator in Chicago with the law firm of Bell, Boyd & Lloyd, now K&L Gates.

Mr. Higgins died Saturday of vascular dementia at Symphony of Lincoln Park care center, relatives said. He was 81.

His father Frank J. Higgins Sr. was a courtroom bailiff and Chicago building inspector. His mother Lois was a pioneering police officer who rose to head the Illinois Crime Prevention Bureau, where she lectured on the dangers of drugs and testified before Congress. They met in court and married in 1935.

Two years later, the city was planning to offer the first policewoman’s exam in two decades. After her husband laughed about it, she took it and placed first out of 1,119 women who did.

The couple raised their family near Madison and Cicero. Young Frank played at Moore Park and went on to graduate tops in the class of 1954 at Fenwick.

While attending Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, he traveled to France’s Brittany Coast to study French. Languages came easily to him. He was able to converse in several, including Arabic, French, Italian, German, Polish and Spanish, relatives said.

At the law firm, he did defense work for major corporate clients, handling complex cases involving securities fraud, antitrust litigation, proxy fights and hostile takeovers. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and the International Chamber of Commerce and became a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

“What would be career cases for many lawyers have merely been cases in the career of Frank Higgins,” partner John W. Rotunno said when Mr. Higgins hit the half-century mark at K&L Gates.

Mr. Higgins had a command of the law and a gift for oratory, according to Rotunno. “He had a dominant, overpowering intellect,” he said. “He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the law and a photographic memory. And he was driven. He never liked to lose.”

“The written and spoken word were weapons in his hands,” Rotunno said in a speech on Mr. Higgins’ retirement in 2015. “In argument, Frank could tie opposing counsel in knots, turning arguments inside out and using them to deadly effect against their authors.”

“He trained several generations of lawyers, each of whom held him in utter awe,” he said.

Mr. Higgins loved opera — in Italian, French, German or English. He enjoyed classical music, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and also songs by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

He savored meals at Les Nomades restaurant.

After retiring at 79, he regularly stopped by his office at K&L Gates. He dropped in six weeks ago, Rotunno said.

He formerly was married to Patricia Heikes. Surviving are their three children, daughter Maura Amato and sons Brian and Colin Higgins, his sister Mary Lois Pfaffinger and grandchildren Micaela and Sarah Amato and Dylan, Nolan, Maggie and Rory Higgins. Visitation is planned from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, 1327 N. Noble, followed by a funeral Mass there at 1 p.m. Inurnment is at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines.