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Chicago Tribune, 16 August 2000
William J. Obermiller, 77, 'Spanking Judge' of 1960s
By James Janega
Retired Whiting City Court Judge William J. Obermiller, 77, known nationwide as the "Spanking Judge" after he ordered a teen defendant's hide tanned by a courtroom bailiff in 1962, died Monday, Aug. 14, in St. Margaret Mercy Healthcare Center in Hammond after a stroke.
Judge Obermiller's 36-year judicial tenure reflects much about changes in the American justice system -- and in American society at large -- over the last four decades. While his 1962 punishment now seems outlandish, at the time it was widely praised; he was one of several judges who meted out similar sentences nationwide.
He ordered courtroom spankings for teens who were unruly in court; long-haired ruffians were taken to a nearby barbershop for compulsory haircuts; and a high school dropout picked up for reckless driving was sentenced to 6 months' labor in the city garage.
Those punishments earned him frequent invitations to speak to homeowners, school assemblies and parents clubs, and Judge Obermiller was a guest on numerous television talk shows. But recently, he acknowledged that such punishments -- especially the spankings -- would no longer work, his daughter Alice said.
"He said nowadays this would not be the way you would treat kids," she said. She said her father was a peaceful man who feared people would think of him as violent for the spankings he once ordered.
Obermiller said her father greatly lamented that the simpler times in which those punishments were ordered seemed to have passed away forever. Whereas early defendants in his courtroom received even more severe punishment when their parents got them home, he noted that in recent years parents seldom even accompanied their children to court.
"That made him very sad, because he sensed how alone those kids were," his daughter said.
Born and raised in Whiting, Judge Obermiller graduated from Whiting High School in 1941 and from the University of Notre Dame in 1947. He served in the Navy during World War II and attended Notre Dame's law school after the war to earn his law degree. From 1953 until 1982, he worked as an attorney for the Amoco oil refinery in Whiting. Elected to the city bench in 1958, he generally handled juvenile cases, public intoxication, petty theft and domestic crimes; he was re-elected nine times and once turned down an invitation to run for mayor.
"There's no question about it: He was an institution," said Whiting City Judge William W. Ciesar, who called Judge Obermiller "a very, very good judge."
"He tried to make every effort to understand the circumstances behind the case but also to understand the individual person as a whole," Ciesar said.
"I think it was demonstrated by the uniqueness of some of his punishments."
Judge Obermiller was also distinctly softhearted. He studiously avoided sending defendants to jail. He often gave reading and essay-writing assignments as terms of probation and once suspended his sentence for a candy store employee caught gambling at work and offered to help the man find another job.
In 1962 Judge Obermiller's public profile hit its height outside of Whiting. The summer had been a hard one for police. Gangs and "clubs" drank and fought on the city's beach, graffiti plagued its buildings and juveniles often openly challenged their parents' and the city's authority in court.
Judge Obermiller gave that first spanking sentence to a young man who called his mother an idiot during a court session.
"All I know is, physical punishment seems to work," he told the Tribune in 1963. "Last year we had 50 arrests over the 4th of July weekend; this year we had one. Apparently the word got around."
In addition to his daughter, Judge Obermiller is survived by his wife, Ann; another daughter, Sara Gallucci; a sister, Alyce DeLand; and two grandsons.
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