When Indiana State’s academic curriculum and overall atmosphere articulated the concepts of servant leadership to Linda Chezem, ’68, those principles became part of her voice within the state judicial system and far beyond those walls.
As a former circuit court and Indiana State Court of Appeals judge, Chezem’s desire to lead was partly shaped by seeing one of the issues that caused distress for individuals and families throughout the state.
“I had represented people as an attorney, and when I went on the bench, I saw people back (in court) again not 30 days later,” Chezem said. “Alcohol issues drove the caseload, especially for misdemeanors. I didn’t want to see a revolving door on the courtroom.”
That was 1978 when Chezem found out the state of Indiana did not have a court-based treatment program to help curb alcohol abuse. Her next step was to figure out what resources might be available.
During the next two decades, the statewide program was implemented and developed through the executive branch of the state. In 1997, the Indiana General Assembly transferred the responsibility for certification, training and support of Court Alcohol and Drug Programs to the Indiana Judicial Center.
Chezem, the first female circuit court judge, served in that position for six years before she moved to the State Court of Appeals until 1998. The combination of misdemeanor and felony cases at the trial-court level included juvenile cases, traffic cases and felony assaults and murders. However, another calling was waiting.
“To leave the court of appeals, I did not do that lightly,” she said. “But to do outreach with students, there was not a way I could do it from the bench. While serving on the bench, it requires you to be much more reserved in what you say and do.”
Chezem’s desire to teach contributed to her conducting mock trials for senior classes in high schools. She has also been a professor in the School of Agriculture at Purdue University. On a national scale, she has chaired assessment teams for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and she has served on the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism through the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
That effort to educate teens and adults about the effects of alcohol has now narrowed to a mission to help the most vulnerable victims.
“I have narrowed my focus to dealing with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders,” Chezem said. “Everybody is talking about the opioid epidemic, but one thing we are missing is the effect of in-utero exposure to alcohol.”
Chezem’s passion for tackling long-range issues is rooted in her English courses at State.
“I had my most hours in English courses,” Chezem said. “I took every English course I could. The literature portion was the best background for being a good lawyer. Understanding the differences in people’s nature and where they are coming from is a big part of it. One of my classes required me to read ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon. People say it happened quickly, but it did not happen quickly. It took over 800 pages. Human communication was slow. I am grateful to ISU for giving me that perspective.”
The core principles of servant leadership also helped shape Chezem’s educational foundation that she carried with her into both graduate studies and her later career pursuits. “That ISU tradition of servant leadership is not always articulated at other schools,” Chezem said.
It is a journey that began in Clay County when both of Chezem’s parents were actively involved in the local church and community. Chezem’s dad ran for public office, and Chezem’s mom (Helen Mae Chezem) taught for 36 years in the county. As the librarian for Clay County Elementary Schools, Helen Mae Chezem read books on closed-circuit TV and set up a media center.
That family tradition of focusing on the importance of education aided Chezem in reaching her goals. It is a multi-generational commitment that has long ties to the university.
“My mother graduated from ISU when it was Indiana Normal School,” Chezem said. “It gave her the opportunity to teach, and the university gave both of us the opportunity to be self-supporting. ISU gave me that chance to get a liberal arts education in a setting that I could commute and afford to go to school.”
The university helped Chezem reach goals she once never knew she had. “Being a judge was not a goal,” she said. “Going to law school was not a goal. I did work (at ISU) to be an English teacher. But learning how to think like a lawyer helps you get organized. If you had asked me what my goal was, it would have been to write the great American novel. I got to write a lot!”