Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 27, 2013

RAY MOSCOWITZ: Judge listened to dad's music, mom's advice

Dan Banina cherishes his blue-collar upbringing.

MC Weekly

---- — He worked behind the concession stand at the Towne Theater in Highland, starting at $1.10 an hour and eventually reaching $2.25.

He did the nastiest jobs in the grimy steel mills of Northwest Indiana, which convinced him that his mother was right.

He poured drinks as a bartender and welcomed guests as a host at a restaurant in Calumet City, Ill., during summers while attending law school.

In each job he learned life lessons that help him preside these days over Superior Court 2 in Miami County.

Daniel C. "Dan" Banina’s story is a narrative of a man, now 56, who rose from a blue-collar background through hard work, dedication and determination to a pivotal role in helping to maintain a civilized society.

It is a story whose backdrop is the gritty milieu of The Region, Northwest Indiana, and includes an important piece of wisdom from a man who ran a tomato canning business in Franklin County, nestled in southern Indiana.

It is also a story with an unusual twist.

It is a story that unfolds on Aug. 6, 1957, at St. Catherine’s Hospital in East Chicago. Dan was born to Jerry Banina, who toiled at Inland Steel until he retired, and Eileen Jutkus Banina, a secretary who, Dan says, never made more than minimum wage.

Jerry Banina’s hard work to provide for his wife and three children, who had settled in Highland, was softened by his passion for music. Sometimes he would play six nights a week in a band, Dan recalls.

Jerry’s father, Joe, had come from Yugoslavia and started a band — the Star Seranaders — that played lively Tamburitzan folk music of eastern Europe that uses mostly string instruments.

“He could sit down and listen to a record, and in a couple of hours write out the sheet music for it,” Banina said of his father. “He had amazing musical talent.”

That talent led to Jerry’s induction into the Tamburitzan Hall of Fame in 1998. He would be the last surviving member of his band before dying in 2011.

While Jerry was laboring with steel by day and making music by night, Eileen was laboring behind a typewriter by day and making a family life by night.

Along with Dan, there were his older siblings, Jeri Lynn (Sherby), who still lives in Highland and is retired from the Inland Steel Credit Union, and Gary, who resides in Hammond and still works in the steel mills.

Recalling his mother, Banina says, “She was my inspiration as a child to continue my education and do something more with my life than work in the steel mills, which is where most of the people worked. She provided constant encouragement to me and made sure I stayed on the right path.”

Like his father and grandfather, Banina developed a strong interest in music. At Highland High School he played trumpet in the concert, marching and jazz bands.

A government class he took in his senior year was a turning point in his life.

“While most kids thought the class incredibly boring,” Banina recalled, “I found it very interesting, particularly the examination of then recent cases like Roe v. Wade [which dealt with abortion rights].”

That’s when he “got the idea” of becoming a lawyer, Banina says.

After graduating in 1975, Banina attended St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1979.

Banina went on to earn a J.D. in 1982 at Valparaiso University School of Law.

He interned and eventually worked for attorney Ronald Nelson in Valparaiso, but he soon decided he needed a better job. He launched a state-wide search that led him to Franklin County in southern Indiana, where he spent three years as the chief deputy prosecuting attorney.

By then he had married Helene Lenz, whom he had met at St. Joseph’s, in September 1982.

After five years in Franklin County, the Baninas yearned to get closer to their families, so Dan applied for and got the job of chief deputy attorney under Miami County Prosecutor Wil Siders in 1987.

For the next nine years, Banina says, he gained much experience in prosecuting drunken drivers and offenses against children, such as child molest and neglect.

When Superior Court Judge Garrett Palmer announced in 1996 he would not seek re-election, Banina saw an opportunity to fill a cherished ambition.

“It had always been my goal to be judge, so I threw my hat in the ring,” Banina said. “My family and I worked our tails off.”

Banina defeated veteran attorney Don Fern and took office in 1997.

An odd set of circumstances would unfold in the years ahead.

Banina was re-elected in 2002, but in November 2008, he was challenged in the Republican primary by attorney David Grund. Banina’s 12-year run on the bench appeared to be over after a 34-vote defeat.

But no.

A year earlier, Banina had been the driving force to get a new trial court for Miami County because of the excessive caseloads in the superior and Circuit courts.

The General Assembly approved Miami Superior Court 2 in 2008. Banina applied to be its first judge. Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed him in December.

“I could not have asked for a better Christmas present,” Banina recalls.

He started the new court on Jan. 1, 2009, and then ran unopposed in 2010 for a full six-year term.

Banina notes: “My judicial career is rather unique in that I know of no other judge who has been elected, re-elected, defeated, appointed, and then elected again in that order with no gap in time.”

He plans to run for one more term and then retire.

“I love my job,” Banina says. “I enjoy helping people. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when I resolve an issue and people can get back to their lives. I especially like juvenile cases. I handle all the juvenile delinquency cases in Miami County. With juveniles there is still the opportunity to turn someone’s life around more so than with adults. Helping young people stay off of drugs and out of trouble is very rewarding.”

He continues: “Seeing children as victims of neglect or abuse is difficult. I also handle all cases in Miami County involving termination of parental rights. Terminating the rights of a child with their parents is by far the toughest thing I do as judge.”

One of the biggest surprises he has seen on the bench, he said, is the number of people still doing methamphetamine. “Despite law enforcement efforts and national publicity on the dangers of meth, it is still prevalent. I have seen many people in my court destroying themselves with meth. It is very sad.”

The most important lesson he has learned as a judge, he said, is to listen closely to both sides in a contested matter. “There have been times when after hearing only one side of the case I have thought to myself, ‘Why are we here? This is obvious.’ But after hearing the other side you realize why they are there and the case is not so ‘cut and dried.’”

Off the bench, he and Helene, who teaches history and English at Maconaquah High School, take pride in watching their three children develop.

Sam, an Eagle Scout and Notre Dame grad, is a software developer for Microsoft in Seattle. Lauren is attending graduate school at IU Bloomington, working on a degree in environmental science. Hannah is a senior at Peru High School, where she is first in her class and a semi-finalist for the National Merit Scholarship. She’s planning on attending Notre Dame, Valparaiso or St. Mary’s College.

Banina has always been active in the community. He is a member and past president of Rotary, serving for many years as chairman of the Peru Rotary Youth Leadership Award. He’s a member of the Knights of Columbus and active in St. Charles Catholic Church.

Judicially, he’s past president of the Miami County Bar Association and on the Board of Managers for the Indiana Judges Association. For the last six years he has been chairman of the Community Correction Board.

For relaxation, he returns to his roots, listening to music, in particular the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Duke Tumatoe. And he’s an avid bowler. Last season, he said, he had the highest scratch series — 749 — at the Riverside Fun Center.

In all of his endeavors, Banina said, he is guided by Chester Pickett, an older gentleman who, among other things, operated a tomato canning business in southern Indiana.

“Mr. Pickett always told me that when life presents you with a difficult choice, ‘You can’t go wrong by doing what’s right,’” Banina says. “This sounds simple in theory but not always easy to apply. But I have adopted it as my way of approaching life’s problems, and I encourage others to do the same.’”

Life lessons never stop.

Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at r.mosco@comcast.net.