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Law school abuzz over affair

September 18, 2006

BY ABDON M. PALLASCH Legal Affairs Reporter
Chicago Sun-Times


When students returned to John Marshall Law School this month, everyone was talking about the lawsuit against "The Colonel."

Robert "Gil" Johnston, the venerable former dean of the university, was sued by his ex-mistress, Virginia Smith, whom he started dating while she was a law student in 1983. Among other claims, she said Johnston beat her, promised to marry her, then, after his wife died, married someone else.

Generations of students have noted a resemblance between Johnston, with his cotton candy white hair and goatee, and Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Sanders.

Johnston's attorney said the former dean admits the affair, but denies any abuse on his part.

"Dean Johnston categorically denies there was any physical or verbal abuse," his attorney, Enrico J. Mirabelli, said.

"His only real crime was that he married someone else. Miss Smith is merely a woman scorned."

Beatings claimed

In her lawsuit, Smith said, "On several occasions, Johnston battered Smith by striking, slapping, shoving, and twisting Smith's face, limbs and body." Their affair lasted from 1983 until last year when he beat her in her home, she said in the lawsuit.

In October, students remembered Johnston coming to school with bruises, said Curtis Vosti, editor of the law school newspaper. He wrote about the issue this month.

"In October, he was sporting bruises at school. It was noticeable. People made their own assumptions," Vosti said.

Yes, there was a beating in October, Mirabelli said. That was when Johnston went to break the news to Smith that he was engaged to marry Jane Oswald, an associate dean at the school. It was Smith who beat Johnston, Mirabelli said.

"At the time he informed her, she clearly did not take the news well," Mirabelli said.

Sex claimed in office, car

Smith's complaint is loaded with salacious allegations that Johnston made his first pass at her in 1981 and started having sex with her in 1983 in his office at John Marshall, in his car and at her home.

Johnston denies any sex in his office or car, Mirabelli said.

Dean John Corkery said the school regards the lawsuit as unfortunate but not anything the school plans to take action about.

It is unclear that any rules were in place in 1983 that would have prohibited a teacher dating a student, though the rules have been made clearer since then, Corkery and the school newspaper article said.

Unspecified damages sought

Born and raised on a sugar plantation in Hawaii, Johnston became the face of John Marshall Law School, serving as dean from 1994 to 2003. He started teaching in 1963; returned to run Hawaii Legal Services from 1969 to 1972, went into private practice for a few years, then returned to John Marshall in 1975.

Smith graduated from John Marshall in 1984 and became a lawyer the following year. The most recent Sullivan's Law Directory lists her as an employee of Accenture. She and her attorney could not be reached for comment for this story.

Her lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages from Johnston, saying, "Johnston's conduct caused Smith medically diagnosable and significant psychological and physical injuries and damages, and required her to seek medical, dental and professional psychological treatment."