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Dr. Nancy Jones: Why I’m retiring


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Updated: July 21, 2012 6:20AM

People work with the dead for many reasons, one being that they are not so adept working with the living.

This trait has been seen in every Cook County medical examiner, from our current M.E., Nancy Jones, whose retirement was announced Tuesday, to the first, Robert J. Stein, and all the medical examiners in between, which would be Edmund R. Donoghue.

There have been only three in an office that is surprisingly new, created in 1976.

Jones, despite her current controversy, is the least flamboyant of the lot. When I called her, the usually candid woman from a small Pennsylvania steel town dutifully said she couldn’t talk — “they’ve muzzled me,” she said — but before she could hang up, she reacted to my badgering by saying her retirement has long been in the works.

“This has got absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on here,” she said, referring to a kerfuffle that started in January over unclaimed bodies piling up at the morgue.

Jones said for the past two years she wanted to retire by July 31 in order to maximize cost-of-living adjustments to her pension. She turns 60 in August and views leaving the high-pressure medical examiner’s office “as a birthday present to myself.”

“The stress has taken a huge toll on me,” she said. “My blood pressure was 220/110.”

Indeed, when I watched her perform autopsies in 2008, she worried about the stress on her subordinates and wished she could find money to give them time away from the autopsy room. She also wished she could get the county to pay for computerization.

It wasn’t the stress of the medical work that got to her, Jones quickly pointed out. That she loved. But the paperwork, which, incredibly, still involves carbon paper, and the politics, caught between the grind wheels of a disloyal staff and the energetic-if-sometimes-strident board president Toni Preckwinkle, who took an instant dislike to Jones.

No surprise there. Politics has always dogged the handling of the dead in Cook County, back to the days when the first curator was named over the “deadhouse” in 1841. The curators became coroners, and while the office did make a name for itself a century ago in the nascent field of pathology, it was also — prepare for a shock — a political office rife with corruption, whose occupant needed no medical skill beyond the ability to wear a bowler hat, chew on a cigar, toe a corpse, and gaze at it thoughtfully for the newspaper photographers before pronouncing the cause of death as whatever his boss wanted it to be.

This sailed along for decades, until the 1960s when a few jaw-dropping scandals forced change, and Stein came in promising “to get the facts and truth in an entirely neutral professional manner.”

Whether he did is open to debate. While impartial — it wasn’t so easy for the cops to say a suspect pummeled himself to death in his cell under Stein — his sin was over-enthusiasm. Stein was proud of his morgue, of the detective work he did, trying to identify the victims of Gacy, trying to piece together the scraps of body parts strewn outside O’Hare Airport by the 1979 DC-10 crash. He wanted “a little museum in the basement . . . done in complete, total and utter simplicity.” His proposal, floated in 1984, was dubbed “an insane scheme” by the Sun-Times.

His successor, Donoghue, was a more close-to-the-vest guy — following Stein, anyone would be — yet couldn’t resist, in the chaos of the 1995 heat wave, painting a heroic role for himself, one that his subordinates later whispered he didn’t quite deserve.

The best of the lot, in my estimation, is Jones, an economical, devout lady who, like Stein, prefers results over appearances. Why use an expensive dura stripper when a pliers from Sears that cost a quarter of the amount would do? Why use easily dulled surgical scalpels when a 10-inch Heinkels kitchen knife costs less and keeps its edge better? If there isn’t money to bury bodies of the indigent, and public outcry prevents your office from giving them to medical schools, then stash them in the cooler — where bodies are sometimes kept for years anyway while cases crawl through the legal system — until the suits figure out what to do with them. She didn’t realize the people responsible for keeping the place straight would take pictures of the clutter and send it to the newspapers while she was on vacation.

Significantly, while Preckwinkle announced sweeping changes — including the computers Jones long wanted — no replacement was named. Don’t hold your breath on that. Given the new five-year term, finding a skilled M.E. will be hard — someone medically qualified to handle the thousands of bodies, emotionally qualified to deal with families, politically qualified to take the heat. And that person knows in five years the job’s over and that a capable predecessor was thrown under the bus. Jones’ leaving might solve one political woe but plants the seeds of others.

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