Divorce lawyer taught law, started security company
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL firstname.lastname@example.org/Twitter: @suntimesobits February 13, 2013 6:04PM
Joseph N. DuCanto served in the Marines in World War II, including 36 days on Iwo Jima. | Provided photo
Updated: March 15, 2013 1:38PM
Perhaps Joseph DuCanto’s wartime experience prepared him for his life’s work as a divorce attorney.
Mr. DuCanto, a World War II Marine who spent 36 days on Iwo Jima, helped found the family law firm of Schiller DuCanto & Fleck in 1981. He practiced divorce law for half a century.
He handled high-profile cases, including the divorce of “Shaft” star Richard Roundtree. He was considered a pioneer for recognizing that structures of divorce settlements could have serious tax benefits — or disadvantages.
Mr. DuCanto helped lawmakers draft tax laws that simplified those settlements, and he taught law at Loyola University.
A former president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, he wrote about family law for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and Chicago Lawyer.
He also started Securatex, a private security company that employs more than 650 people.
Mr. DuCanto, 85, of River Forest, died Friday at Rush University Medical Center.
He had come a long way from being a ward of New York State.
Mr. DuCanto was orphaned at 4 and spent his early years in an orphanage and in foster homes near Utica, N.Y, said his law partner, Donald C. Schiller.
At 16, he enlisted in the Marines. He stood five feet, four inches tall.
“DuCanto was one year too young and one inch too short, but no one questioned him when he said he was 17,” according to the book, “Two Score and Thirteen: Third Marine Division Association History, 1949-2002.”
He suffered hearing loss from the shelling on the beach, where his job was to move equipment and casualties, the book said. There was no place to hide, and bombs and sniper fire were everywhere, he said.
He had been self-conscious about being on the short side, but he joked it made him a smaller target, Schiller said.
Though he never graduated from high school, after the war, Mr. DuCanto graduated from Antioch College in Ohio. His classmates included Coretta Scott King and Rod Serling, who created the “Twilight Zone.” Mr. DuCanto received a full scholarship to the University of Chicago law school.
In 1955, when he started practicing, the world of law was stratified, he once wrote.
“Then, a ‘large’ firm had as many as 16 lawyers, very few of whom were women. And Jews and Gentiles did not mix, with social club structures and memberships so restrictive such that Western [German] Jews belonged to the Standard Club and Eastern Jews to the Covenant Club, and all the Gentiles had a dozen clubs that sorted them out,” he said.
Threats were sometimes hurled his way during ugly divorce hearings, but Mr. Ducanto had a reputation for keeping his cool. He hired security when he thought he needed it.
“He was considered, really, a master, a great, skillful problem solver, and he was able to persuade incredibly, but without animus, without raising anger,” Schiller said.
“Joe was a legendary matrimonial lawyer, although short in stature he towered over many of his peers,” said Alton Abramowitz, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “He served as a mentor and role model to the generations following in his footsteps.”
Often, Mr. DuCanto was asked why marriages fail. “I blame medical science,” he wrote in a column for the Daily Law Bulletin.
“In past centuries, the young married very young, paralleling the onset of puberty, produced numerous children, many of whom died during their infancy, and promptly departed life in their 30s and 40s,” he said. “Quite clearly, a marriage duly made ‘until death do us part,’ which could reasonably be expected to endure 20 to 25 years at most, is a far different commitment made today, where joint lifespan can see marriages endure for 50, 60 and even 70 years.”
He never forgot how it felt to be a child alone in the world. He was active in military charities, funding scholarships for the children of fellow Marines.
A memorial service is scheduled at 1 p.m. Feb. 21 at First Unitarian Church, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave. He is survived by his wife, Patricia; his sons, Anthony and James DuCanto, and Bill Heiman, and four grandchildren.