Born and raised in the Peoria area, Dennis Triggs has traveled across the country and Europe to accomplish his goals. From Washington D.C. for law school and later to Germany for the Air Force—with a young family in tow—Triggs says he would have to live a thousand lives to pursue everything in which he has an interest.
Now, as the senior member of the law firm Miller, Hall & Triggs, the father of two grown children said he has the opportunity to fulfill his civic responsibilities.
A member of the Peoria County Bar Association since 1975, Triggs is now the organization’s president. “I’m immensely proud of the association and honored to be the president,” Triggs said. “The commitment of all different ages in the bar is incredible to me. I don’t have to lean on anybody, there are people volunteering for whatever it is.”
Working with the Peoria Area World Affairs Council and the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Red Cross, Triggs said he is grateful to be able to give back to the community. He and his wife, Judy, live in Morton.
Tell us about your background, schools attended and family.
I was born at OSF St. Francis Hospital in Peoria on December 9, 1944. My mother, Mary Bernice (Giltner) Triggs, was born in Tiskilwa and grew up on a large farm family. She is still in good health at the age of 91. My father sold industrial hardware for most of his life. He died unexpectedly on June 6, 1967. I have a sister, Patricia Kay Johnson, who is three years older than me. I had four half-brothers who were considerably older than me. Three of the four are deceased. I have always been told that when I was 2, I fell into a cistern at my aunt’s house and nearly drowned. My dad, with some help from my grandmother and a neighbor who happened to be a nurse, saved my life.
Judy (Judith K. Nena) and I were married in June of 1967. We have two children; Julie was born in 1970 at the hospital at Andrews Air Force Base and Andrew was born in 1972 at the Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany. Our daughter is married to Andreas Heim, a German national, and together they have three children, who are, of course, very central to my life. Sammy, Emily and Maya were all born in Germany and, until a couple of years ago, the family lived in Germany. They now live about two blocks from our home. Julie and Andrew have both lived and studied abroad. Julie, after graduating from the University of Illinois, studied in Germany and was certified to teach in the German public school system. Upon returning to the states, she taught German at Pekin High School. Andrew, an attorney with Caterpillar, recently relocated from Peoria to CAT Logistics in the Chicago area. Julie’s husband is a vision consultant who is building his own business selling assistive technology devices that help persons with poor vision.
I graduated from East Peoria High School in 1962. I was a member of the National Honor Society and lettered for all four years in track and two years in football. As a boy, I spent part of several summers on my aunt’s farm near Princeton. I mention this because those days on the farm are among my happiest memories. The work was hard and life was simple—but I don’t think I have ever been so content since then. After high school I decided that I wanted to attend one of the service academies. I had a vague sense I wanted to do something more than simply go to college and focus on earning a living.
Tell us about the service academy.
Before I went to the United States Air Force Academy, I spent one year at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana. Culver is an exclusive, highly-regarded secondary school that my family could not afford. I was admitted on a Falcon Foundation Scholarship. The scholarship was awarded to high school graduates intent upon gaining admission to the Air Force Academy. I had an extraordinary experience at Culver. I took college-level courses and was fortunate to graduate with honors in English. Most of my Culver classmates came from prominent families and some of them went on to achieve fame of their own. I gained admission to the Air Force Academy and was able to proficiency several classes.
At the Academy, I believe that I was on the Superintendent’s list all eight semesters. The list is a combination of the Dean’s list for academic performance and the Commandant’s list for military performance. I participated in many different intramural sports, most notably boxing. During summers, I visited air bases around the country and flew in most of the then current aircraft. I majored in economics, with a minor in political science. I decided during my last year that I wanted to become an attorney. At that time the Air Force allowed one cadet from each graduating class to attend law school in the status of leave of absence without pay. At the time of graduation, I was fortunate to be ranked first in the military order of merit. I was active in a number of areas at the Academy— but I think most memorable was my involvement as a cadet honor code committee representative. The Academy motto, “we will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate among us those who do,” was then and continues to this day to be somewhat controversial. Most of my classmates did then and continue to this day to take the code very seriously.
As others close to me may relate (and as reported at the time in the Peoria Journal Star), June of 1967 was a very emotional month. On June 6th at our graduation parade at the Academy, I was marching in front of the Cadet Wing as the Deputy Wing Commander. At the end of the parade, the Commandant of Cadets, General Sieth, pulled me off to the side and told me that my father had collapsed in the viewing stand and died just as the parade was starting. The next day, June 7th, I graduated from the Academy—but did not throw my hat into the air or join in the celebration. On June 8th, the family returned home and on June 9th we laid my dad to rest. On June 10th, because it was my mother’s wishes and many guests had made plans, Judy and I celebrated our wedding.
I was fortunate to have obtained a scholarship to attend law school at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Judy worked, primarily as a teacher in the District of Columbia system, while I attended law school. During the summers, I went on an active duty status and worked in the office of the Staff Judge Advocate at Andrews Air Force Base. I received my Juris Doctorate in June of 1970 and was admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia. As noted above, Julie was born while I was stationed at Andrews, where I served as a staff judge advocate. In the evening I attended law school at the National Law Center of the George Washington University and obtained in 1972 an LLM (advance law degree). At that time I thought I might want to teach law.
Early in the summer of 1972, I was transferred to Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany. Initially, we lived in a small town of Bad Schwalbach in the Taunus Mountains. Andy was born in November, just three months after we arrived.
Give us a little insight into your profession.
In 1985, our law firm of Clem and Triggs merged into the longestablished law firm of Davis & Morgan. In 1989, Davis & Morgan was dissolved and the four partners formed the law firm of Miller, Hall & Triggs. Miller, Hall & Triggs now represents over 100 public entities and by the end of the year will have 20 attorneys. I am the most senior member of the firm. Everyday I am thankful for having the privilege of working with so many talented attorneys and a loyal and professional staff. They afford me the opportunity to fulfill some civic responsibilities. Any measure of success I have enjoyed I owe to my colleagues, including a friend and partner who died suddenly in October of 2005.
I am never bored and would have to live a thousand times to pursue all the activities, some academic and some purely recreational, in which I have an interest. I enjoy books, particularly nonfiction that deals with history and current events. Judy and I have for two decades supported the local world affairs council and have been fortunate to have visited many foreign countries. I have an abiding interest in our public school system and in the quality of local government. Over the years, together with other attorneys in the firm, I have presented many seminars and workshops aimed at improving the governance of public schools and municipalities.
At Miller, Hall & Triggs, what do you find most rewarding?
Apart from sharing in some of the successes of our public clients, the most rewarding aspect of my position at Miller, Hall & Triggs is helping young persons learn to better serve clients. Of course it is exciting, if a little disconcerting, to recognize that suddenly younger attorneys know more about various substantive areas of the law than I do. But what is especially gratifying is to watch how junior partners have learned to analyze issues, read people and solve problems.
What is another focus in your life besides your career?
Nine years ago, my grandson, Samuel Dennis, was born with Downs Syndrome. While this is not the place to elaborate on the range of emotions that parents and grandparents experience with such a special child, know that Sammy is on my mind every day. As mentioned above, I also have two granddaughters, who have no disabilities and who likewise bring me great joy. While this biography tells the story of someone who has had some modest measure of success in the practice of law and who has found great satisfaction in representing the public, family and friends—especially my life-long companion—Judy, define who I am. Everyone’s life should be as rich as mine.
In what capacity did you serve in the Air Force?
My duty was to serve as the USAF liaison to German authorities for purposes of monitoring the Status of Forces Agreement and assuring fair treatment of USAF personnel charged with crimes or serving time in German penal institutions. In 1973, I was appointed Circuit Defense Counsel for United States Air Force, Europe. As such I served as lead defense counsel for any airman or officer facing a general court martial for allegedly committing a felony. I tried cases throughout Germany and occasionally in Spain, England and Turkey. I think I had the best job of any JAG in the Air Force. But my next assignment was not likely to be as interesting or as challenging. In November of 1975, I resigned my commission and returned to central Illinois. Judy and I both had widowed mothers and we looked forward to our children enjoying our extended families. We found a house in Morton and have lived in the village ever since.
What did you do after returning home from service?
Upon our return, I became an associate in the small law firm of Clem and Hardy. After a couple of years, that firm became Clem and Triggs. By 1980, it became apparent that I needed to concentrate in a practice area, rather than attempting to maintain proficiency in a wide spectrum of practice areas. More by happenstance than design, I found myself representing public entities, in particular school districts. In 1980, I believe that I probably rendered legal services to about three school districts and one municipality. At that time most public entities were represented by general practitioners and almost no attorney in central Illinois made public law an area of concentration. Although not as lucrative as other practice areas, I found the work incredibly rewarding because in representing local public entities one was truly serving the public interest.
In 1983, I was retained as corporate counsel for the City of East Peoria, my hometown. I have had the pleasure of serving in that capacity ever since. During that period of time East Peoria was fortunate to have had council members who were able to work well together and who simply never put politics in front of the public interest. Because of the quality of that elected leadership, the community has been transformed. Since 1983, our public law practice has blossomed, especially our school law practice.
What tied you to serving school districts early in your career?
It did not take me long to figure out that when representing public school districts one interacts with persons, whether they be teachers, administrators or board members, who are willing to make sacrifices to assure that our children learn. What ties me to serving school districts is the outstanding caliber of people with whom I work and the critical role that public education plays in a democracy. Although the number of students who are failing to learn in the schools of this state is appalling and the public does not yet understand that this cumulative failure is the gravest threat to our national well-being, I am privileged to work with many in the educational community who do understand the seriousness of the problem and are committed to helping each student succeed.
Please elaborate on your “civic responsibilities.”
Although I believe that, to the extent that circumstances will allow, we should all volunteer time and energy to any of those hundreds of organizations that make our society a better place; personal and family situations do not allow everyone to play a public role in some voluntary organization. Caring quietly for family and friends is an important aspect of meeting our “civic responsibilities.” In my judgment those who raise their children to be responsible citizens, who perform their jobs well, cast informed ballots and give quietly according to their means, fulfill their “civic responsibilities.” Only because I am blessed with understanding law partners and a supportive wife, have I been able to work with several civic organizations. Because I believe it important for Americans to be informed about our foreign policy, I have attempted to assist the Peoria Area World Affairs Council in fulfilling its mission of providing opportunities for local citizens of every age to learn more about international relations. Or to take another example, keeping in mind that the American Red Cross receives no regular government funding and must depend upon the time, talent and financial contributions of private citizens, I am grateful for having the opportunity to contribute in a small way to the Central Illinois Chapter. I’m immensely proud of the Peoria County Bar Association. I absolutely believe it is the best in the state of Illinois and people from outside the area confirm that. The readiness to give so much time from both senior and young attorneys is incredible to me.
What is one of your fondest trips?
Last fall Judy and I traveled to the Balkans, via Vienna, Austria. Any student of Western history has to find it exciting to visit this part of the world. Most of us remember that it was the assassination in the Balkans of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a Serbian nationalist that sparked World War I. All of us have a sense that a clash of cultures has rendered the Balkans unstable for centuries. While traveling through Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro we were able to enjoy spectacular scenery, including the Dalmatian coast and the walled city of Dubrovnik, while at the same time experiencing first hand the differing perspectives of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations that make the area such a tinder box. Given our common interest in other cultures and international relations, this is the kind of vacation that Judy and I find most appealing.
How has your military background shaped your life?
Others can better judge if my military experience has helped shape my life. I do know that the military teaches, discipline, responsibility and the value of working together as a unit. I suspect that my parents had more to do with forming my character, but the experience of examining and living under the Air Force Academy’s Honor Code certainly served to reinforce the idea that honor always comes first. I have fond memories of and a continuing affection for the United States Air Force. Like the other branches of service, the men and women in blue take care of their own. Given its rank structure, it is ironic that the military is such a great leveler. During one’s “plebe” year at a service academy or during basic training, one’s background ceases being relevant. That is why I am one those persons who believe that military training, or least some alternative mandatory national service, would be healthy for the country. IBI