The middle-class daughter of a house painter and a food service worker grew up in a home that valued education. Judge Diane Kavadias Schneider went to college, initially at a large, downstate university. But after three semesters she transferred to Purdue University Calumet to study English in preparation for a career as a schoolteacher. After she graduated in 1971, she began teaching middle school language arts in her hometown of Calumet City, IL.
She also worked with the school board president “to hammer out” the district’s first written teachers’ contract. But after seven years in the classroom, she decided to change her career path and enter law school.
“One of my instructors at Purdue University Calumet, John Mybeck, taught a class in teacher-administration relations,” she recalls. “We had to do a mock negotiation, and he told us we were to represent the side that was counter to our own personal viewpoint, so that we would see things from the other side. That experience really opened my eyes.”
The exercise also motivated Judge Schneider to reroute her career aspirations toward law. So she enrolled in the Valparaiso University School of Law in 1979. To say her new career direction took flight is quite an understatement for the former schoolteacher, who now serves as Northwest Indiana Lake County Superior Court senior judge — and the first woman judge in the court’s Civil Division. From her bench, she presides over cases relating to personal injury, medical malpractice, injunctions, and more.
“It’s an important part of our democracy that we work under the law; it’s how we settle disputes in our society,” she says, carefully articulating the significance of a job held in high regard by so many, yet also, at times, considered disheartening.
“I know people hate jury duty,” she continues, “but after they serve in my court, I give them a questionnaire asking for feedback. It’s amazing how many respond, ‘I didn’t want to serve, but after doing it, I found it rewarding.’”
Indiana Adult Guardianship Task Force
Perhaps closest to Judge Schneider’s heart has been her involvement with the Indiana Adult Guardianship Task Force, a state program that provides guardianship services for hospitalized citizens.
“We started it 10 years ago,” she says. “It has produced so many good, local stories about people who have stepped up to arrange medical care for individuals who had no one else in their lives to do so.”
The program provides direction for individuals “who go through 40 hours of training to become a voluntary guardian,” she says. “People who criticize Lake County would be surprised at all the good this program provides.”
Judge Schneider is former chair of the Indiana Adult Guardianship Task Force. She received the Indiana Commission for Women’s 2005 Torchbearer Award for Advocacy in recognition of her work with Indiana’s first guardianship program: Volunteer Advocates for Seniors Program. What’s more, the Indiana State Guardianship Association honored her in 2012 as “Guardian of the Year.”
Last year, she also received the Indiana State Bar Association Women in the Law Achievement Award.
Family and Purdue University Calumet Influence
Judge Schneider’s career move into law led her to meet her husband, Lake County Chief Public Defender David Schneider. Their family includes a son, stepson, and two grandchildren.
Her busy, focused, engaging life in the realm of law — a calling about which she remains passionate at age 65 — is reflective of her upbringing. “My father emigrated from Greece,” she says. “He didn’t go to college, but he felt education was very important and made sure my sister and I went [to school].”
Judge Schneider believes her decision to transfer to Purdue University Calumet could not have worked out better. “I felt so good learning in that environment,” she recalls. “I learned research skills and how to write and articulate. I had some wonderful (English) professors: Bob Nichols, John Tuckey, Charlie Tinkham. When he would see me years later, Charlie would scold me, ‘You should be writing; inside of you is a book!’ He was great.“
“I think what impressed me most about my Purdue University Calumet professors was how effective they were determining the needs of their students and tailoring their teaching to those needs.”
Though there was precious little Purdue University Calumet campus back in the early ‘70s, Judge Schneider recalls how she and her friends were content to “hang out in a little room with a jukebox.” They also were enterprising enough to establish a Purdue University Calumet chapter of Theta Phi Alpha sorority. Though the chapter eventually deactivated, she and a core group of about a dozen founding sorority sisters continue to meet for dinner regularly, and contribute to a charity in the name of Theta Phi Alpha.
Whether in a courtroom or through other venues, giving back has defined the busy life of Judge Diane Schneider.
“I just believe it’s important to have purpose in your life,” she says. “As the saying goes, you have to do what you love and love what you do to find purpose and happiness. We need goals, and goals change as we move through life, but then we have to adapt to change.
“If you had told me thirty-some years ago I’d be doing what I’m doing, I’d have laughed. But that’s change, and I’ve been very fortunate.”
–By Wes Lukoshus (MA ‘89)