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Alumna focuses on faith, community during challenging times

Linda Jeffrey

From The Ichabod - Fall 2017

Linda Jeffrey, ba ’74, jd ’77, has a theory about why she’s been blessed with loving friends, a supportive family and a fulfilling career.

“I often say, ‘God loves you, but I’m his favorite.’ What other explanation can there be for the many opportunities to live, laugh, love and give back to my community I’ve been afforded?” Jeffrey said.

In March, Jeffrey was recognized as the 2017 Woman of Distinction by the American Business Women’s Association’s Career Chapter in Topeka, just one of many awards the Topeka native has received over the years as an attorney, a mentor and a volunteer. During her career, Jeffrey enjoyed working with elected officials while at the Kansas Attorney General’s office, on the legal staff for Shawnee County and as city attorney for Topeka. When she was appointed in 1994, Jeffrey became the first woman and the first African American to serve as city attorney, where she worked long hours on challenging issues without losing her smile or upbeat spirit.

She did, however, insist on cleaning up the language at the city attorney’s office. Carol R. Bonebrake, a Topeka attorney and former employee of Jeffrey, recalled how Jeffrey taught them all to use the word “vexed” instead of its crude alternatives.

“Linda treated us all like family, but she was always the captain of the ship,” Bonebrake said. “Her job was to keep the mayor and city council members in line. I think she was managing the elected officials even when they didn’t know they were being managed.”

Now in retirement, Jeffrey remains committed to serving her community. She currently serves on the board for Community Action, Inc. and The Women’s Fund, a donor-advised fund of the Topeka Community Foundation. Jeffrey values the strategic work done through the Community Foundation, which connects donors to organizations making a real difference in their community. The Foundation chooses grantees with intentional care — a process that was enhanced from Jeffrey’s presence.

“We all listen when she speaks because we know her contributions take our conversations to the next level,” said Marsha Pope, president of the Topeka Community Foundation.

But Jeffrey’s future didn’t always look so bright. One cold day in 1969, the high school senior came home to discover the family’s Christmas tree had caught fire and everything had burned. Jeffrey and her four siblings were already in a challenging situation, straddling the poverty line in a poor neighborhood. But Jeffrey’s parents took the disaster in stride. 

“My parents were strong, honest, hardworking people with a genuine Christian faith who taught us by example,” Jeffrey said. “After the fire they just said, ‘Hey, we’re all alive! God is good.’ And we worked to slowly get back on our feet.”

From an early age, Jeffrey’s parents stressed the importance of getting an education and making a difference in the community. Jeffrey took that direction to heart, working hard to obtain scholarships, following her older sister Bernadette to Washburn University and pursuing volunteer opportunities. While considering a graduate degree in urban planning or government, Jeffrey realized a law degree could open nearly any door. As a teen, Jeffrey had experienced firsthand how the law could influence behavior and bring about change as she and her younger sister were asked to help bring integration to Topeka.

“Shelia and I would be invited to be the first blacks at this event or that event, breaking the color barrier,” Jeffrey said. “We knew that someone had to do it, so it might as well be us. At first, people might look at you funny. And I’d think, ‘Haven’t you seen a black person before?’ But you know, maybe they hadn’t! And then people would get to know you and see that we’re all the same.”

In 1977, Jeffrey was one of the first three African American women to graduate from Washburn University School of Law. She recalls her time at Washburn Law fondly and said she was well prepared for her legal career. She learned that being a good lawyer required absolute honesty and integrity, and that justice must be available to all people.

Many organizations and causes have benefited from Jeffrey’s involvement over the years, but cancer has been a special passion. She has volunteered at a camp for children and youth with cancer and was part of the community coalition responsible for Topeka’s Race Against Breast Cancer. Jeffrey was 40 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that has claimed the lives of several women in her family. Though Jeffrey persevered through a painful recovery and returned to work, chronic health problems eventually prompted her to take an early retirement.

Still, Jeffrey’s friends see that same shining smile and spark of life. Jeffrey says that life is just too exciting to stay depressed for very long.

“Linda decided to be happy even in the face of profound adversity, personal disappointments, health challenges,” Bonebrake said. “But most of all, Linda is a woman of distinction because she has distinguished herself through hard work, commitment, loyalty, trust in the democratic process and her abiding faith in God.”

The Ichabod fall 2017 magazine cover

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2016-17 fall edition online and look for the 2017-18 fall edition in October.

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