Spirited Cause New probate court judge adopts 'can-do' way of life

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

For many children of adoption, the “why” of it is carried around for life like a burden. But for Kathleen A. Ryan, it’s been a blessing.

Adopted shortly after birth by James L. Ryan and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, Kathleen grew up the youngest of four adopted children who never knew their biological parents. Yet each has carved out a successful life filled with unqualified love, superior role models, and the quest for excellence through hard work.

For Kathleen, a self-described “free spirit” who prefers the less-formal moniker of Kate, another level of her rise through the legal profession occurred Tuesday, January 11 when she is sworn in as an Oakland County Probate Court judge. Even a month after being elected, Ryan had a difficult time believing her good fortune.

“I just pinch myself and wonder, ‘Is it real, is it true,’” she said. “I’m tickled pink, and so excited, but (a little) scared because I don’t want to disappoint (anyone).”

That’s likely the least thing she’ll have to worry about. During a recent interview, Ryan comes across as a well-grounded person who enjoys life’s little pleasures, such as family, concerts, art, and socializing.

When a reporter called her a “pretty cool chick” at the end of an interview, she laughed and insisted that it be added to the story.
“My family would love to see that,” she said without a hint of self-importance or political correctness.

But Oakland County voters should also know they are getting a judge who accepts her position with the utmost seriousness and gives the job the respect and weight it deserves. Ryan will not be caught off-guard or ill-prepared for anything that comes before her. No one will out-work or out-study her. It‘s just the way she’s been raised.

Ryan, 41, was born in Southfield, “so they say.” The Ryans were one of several founding members of Right to Life of Michigan, and wanted to adopt more children after Kate, but were rebuffed because Roe v. Wade had recently been enacted and officials wanted to give other families a chance to adopt, figuring there would be fewer babies available for adoption and they already had four.

Although she came from a family of means – her father was a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge, and later on the state Supreme Court before retiring recently from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – they were raised as a normal, down-to-earth family, living in a modest brick house in a blue-collar neighborhood. Ryan said her father’s position did not resonate with her until much later in life.

“He could have been a plumber, for all I knew,” she said.

Ryan worked a number of jobs while attending a Catholic grade school and high school, baby-sitting, working at a doughnut shop, to buy those expensive jeans she craved. She also attributes her mother, a homemaker, for instilling that work ethic in her.

“She was the rock of the family who kept everyone down to earth,” she said. “We always had to work to pay our own way, and were never treated with privilege.”

Her father made it a point to warn her that if she got in trouble, she was not to use his name as a “freebie.”

“I learned to take my lickings on my own,” Ryan said.

Her parents also taught her to give back, and she recalls cleaning church pews and working in soup kitchens, always giving her time to help those less fortunate. And despite being adopted, Ryan said they were an Irish-American family “through and through.”

Ryan credits her biological mother, and those of her two brothers and one sister, “for being selfless enough to give us a better life. And boy, did I hit the jackpot,” she said. “I have the best family of all, I’m very proud to be adopted, and I feel very special.”

All the children have achieved success. Her older brother, Daniel P. Ryan, is a Wayne County Circuit Court judge; Jimmy is a lobbyist for a public affairs firm and a former state representative, high school teacher and football coach; and sister Colleen is a homemaker who works with disabled children. All have two or more children.

Ryan attended Catholic schools, and after graduation did not know what she wanted to do. She entertained thoughts of becoming an archeologist, or a doctor, or an artist. She went to Notre Dame and received a bachelor of arts degree in 1992, with an emphasis in ceramic and wood sculpture, although she also did metal work, printmaking and painting, earning praise in awards and publications.

She sold some of her art pieces to pay the bills after college, had a teaching gig in South Bend, Ind., and took a year off to travel to exotic locales such as Central and South America, trying to decide what to do next. She finally decided on law and entered the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

“I was pretty much a free spirit,” she said. “But I knew that law school was a wonderful investment, no matter what I got in to.”

She also tackled a number of jobs while there to support herself, and did a few stints as a law firm clerk. At one point, she was able to practice in court under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

“I think that really is what put the fire in my belly to be a litigator,” Ryan said. “I enjoyed being in the courtroom, dealing with the people and the process.”

Growing up, Ryan was surrounded by the law, and said looking back, that influence was critical in her decision. Her parents never pushed the kids one way or another and always encouraged them to follow their heart, but “indirectly I got a taste of the law, and I didn’t realize it.”

After graduating in 1996, Ryan said she made “a bold move” to open her own law firm, despite offers to join several others.

“I wanted to be able to call the shots, pick and choose my clients, and handle it the way I saw fit,” she said. “Everyone thought I was out of my brains.”

But the way Ryan saw it was she owned nothing, and if she made a pittance her first year, it would be more than she made the previous year.

Hours after being sworn in, she was in court, lost as a little puppy but determined to make it.

“I was totally on my own, I was scared to death, and it was sink or swim,” she said.

Of course, she swam.

“And I’ve been on my own ever since,” she said.

She and Dan Schouman opened an office in Dearborn and shared expenses for a year until forming a partnership in 1998. Ryan took any and all cases at first, but found she was soon drawn to divorce and probate work.

“That really resonated with me because you were dealing with people, human emotions, and turmoil,” she said.

Ryan also said she chose that area of law because she was raised to be involved with others and to give back to society. Ryan said the firm eventually moved to Walled Lake, and for 14 years, she was content doing probate and family work, but in late 2009 she was approached by a number of people who urged her to consider running for the Probate Court seat, which was vacated by the retirement of Judge Eugene Moore.

After going back and forth on the matter, Ryan said she prayed about it and talked to her family, who gave her the go-ahead. But they all decided she should run on her own merit and not use her father’s and brother’s names in any campaign literature, even though it might have led to more support and money.

“I did not want to run on their coattails,” Ryan said.

She filed, obtained the required signatures, advanced through the primary and won the election for the $140,000 per year position. The dual Probate/Family Court judge deals with estates, wills, divorces, family court matters and trusts, guardianships and mental health, among other matters.

Ryan said the election was a “very exciting experience,” and one she wouldn’t trade for the world.

“Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a free spirit,” she said. “I make decisions quickly, and I follow through on it, and I never look back.”

She does not want that to mean she is impetuous, but rather very studious, studying a problem and then going forward with a well-reasoned and well-thought out solution.

“I’ve always been an overachiever, and I’m harder on myself than anybody else.”

Ryan said she has very high expectations to avoid disappointing anyone, including herself.

“I will be busting my fanny to get up to speed and be the best judge I can be because that’s a huge responsibility,” she said.

She said she’s spent hours each night preparing for the job, reading court rules and ethics, so she can hit the bench running.

“I’ll strive to be a judge that allows everyone to have their say, so whether they win or lose, they can say I was listened to when they walk out of the court,” she said.

Ryan carries compassion into the courtroom from cases she’s worked on herself. It’s natural when dealing with tragedies in probate, divorce and death.

“You get a thick skin, but never calloused,” she said.

With cases like those, Ryan said she has dealt with it in court but cried when she got to her car, or at night at home.

“But it’s part of the burden,” she said. “It‘s a privilege to be an attorney, not a right, and with it comes a huge responsibility and obligation. You have to deal with the bad as well as the good.”

Part of the bad was personal. Ryan’s mother died unexpectedly in 2007, just after her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Thoughts of her mother brought tears to Ryan during an interview, but she said her father remarried and is happy, and continues to donate his time to charities.

Ryan is married to Kevin M. Wilhelmi, an immigration lawyer, and is step-mom to his two children, Max and Julie.
“I love them as my own,” she said.

Besides her family focus, Ryan is concentrating on being an excellent judge.

“I’m looking forward to working with all the Oakland County judges,” she said. “They are the finest judges in Michigan, and now I’ll be their colleague.”