Former 102nd District Judge Leon Pesek Sr. demonstrated his love for his family and his community by serving both with unwavering devotion.
Pesek died Sunday in a Texarkana retirement home at age 89. An accomplished and well-respected attorney in his civil practice, Pesek served as an Assistant Texas Attorney General and as an attorney for the city of Texarkana, Texas. Pesek was elected in 1978 by the citizens of Bowie and Red River counties to serve as a district judge for more than a decade. Pesek took the bench of Texas' 102nd District Court in 1979 and retired in 1993.
"He was a dedicated public servant and loved and enjoyed people," Texarkana lawyer Winford Dunn said. "He enjoyed campaigning because he enjoyed getting to meet and visit with people."
Retired Assistant District Attorney James Elliott, who handled criminal cases before Pesek in all of the judge's years on the bench, said Pesek treated people of all stations with dignity and respect.
"He never let his power and authority go to his head at all," Elliott said. "He did his level best to be courteous to every person in the courtroom; lawyer, victim, jury, defendant. No lawyers dreaded practicing before him because he was consistent, fair and courteous. He was just a good, level-headed judge."
Bobby Lockhart, who serves as District Judge of the 102nd, remarked on Pesek's humanity as well.
"Many judges have the ability to understand the law, very few judges have the ability to understand the law and how to apply it people and life," Lockhart said. "Judge Pesek was one of those very few who could do both."
Pesek graduated from St. Mary's Law School in San Antonio and following graduation served in the Judge Advocate General Corps with the Army. His military service took him to Louisiana, where he met his wife, Shirley. The Peseks moved to Texarkana in 1962.
One of the couple's sons, Leon Pesek Jr., followed in his father's footsteps by attending law school and becoming a Texas District Judge. Another son, Michael, inspired Leon and Shirley Pesek to work to better the lives of the disabled.
Dunn said that when the couple realized they were the parents of a child with Down's Syndrome, they broke with social tradition and challenged the norms of the 1960s by raising their disabled son at home.
"They were ahead of their time in their efforts to publicly support the education of Michael and other children with developmental disabilities," Dunn said. "He did the things to help Michael be educated in public when it was a very unpopular way to expose your developmentally disabled child to community activities. He was truly a civil rights leader. Leon Pesek and Shirley and their other children—Phillip, Cathy and Leon Jr.—are truly heroes in what they did for Michael and other disabled children when it was not a popular cause."
Patty Smith, who devoted her career to Opportunities Inc., said Pesek's contribution was critical to the establishment and survival of the organization that continues to serve the disabled in Texarkana.
"I would say that his leadership and guidance and direction really set the standards for us. He was remarkable," Smith said. "Back in the 1960s they (Leon and Shirley Pesek) were searching for help, for what to do, because they wanted Michael to remain at home. Leon and a small group of parents wanted to provide what was needed for the education, training and therapy for those with special needs."
Smith said the Peseks worked tirelessly to see the founding of Texarkana Special Education Center, the organization that became Opportunities. Leon Pesek was a founding and charter member of the Opportunities board of directors and served as a board member for 50 years. In 2015, the organization recognized his contributions by awarding him the status of Emeritus Board Member.
Smith said Pesek provided legal expertise to the organization and never wavered in his committment to the disabled, even after Michael's death.
"He participated in every event, he served as president of the board of directors and remained an active board member as long as his health permitted," Smith said. "Opportunities has lost a very devoted and caring friend. He certainly served with compassion, love and deep concern for all individuals with special needs."
Pesek loved his country as well. Beyond his public service in his community and to the law, Dunn said Pesek was a patriot.
"He regularly passed out American flag lapel pins," Dunn said. "If you wanted to get a devoted witness about why America is so great, just ask him. He would tell you a lifelong experience of what the communists did in Czechoslovakia to his family and friends. He loved America."
Later in his life, Pesek wrote about his family's history and immigration to the U.S. in a book, "The Lamp Beside the Golden Door." The title is a line from the famous sonnet affixed to the base of the statue of liberty.
"He was a friend to all who knew him," Dunn said. "He will be greatly missed."