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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 08:31 pm

A live contest

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Susan Boone: “It’s become a way of life for me.”

For the first time in eight years, Sangamon County voters will have a choice for coroner on Nov. 2. Democrat Jerry Compton, a veteran medical lab technician for Memorial Medical Center, is taking on Susan Boone, the two-term Republican incumbent. Neither Boone nor Compton have primary challengers.

The state doesn't require much of coroners. They don't have to have a college degree or have any experience in law enforcement or medicine to run. Within six months of being elected, they must complete a law enforcement training program and attend at least 24 hours of accredited continuing education courses every year.

Such minimal standards belie the job's actual worth. The coroner is the second highest law enforcement officer in Illinois counties -- except for Cook, which appoints a medical examiner instead. When the sheriff is out of town or unable to fulfill duties, the coroner takes over. "I can actually arrest the sheriff," says Boone, 55. "I bet you didn't know that."

The coroner also requires skills of a counselor and probably has more contact with victims' loved ones than any other person in the community. Daily investigations into murders, accidents, suicides, and other unnatural deaths necessitate a thick skin. Coroners sit in on autopsies performed by physicians and conduct crime scene investigations. They often lecture students on issues such as drinking and driving and promote Alzheimer's research and organ donation. With such varied community contact and duties, the office can lead to greater things. William Telford, who was county coroner before Boone's predecessor Norm Richter, resigned his job in 1971 to become mayor of Springfield.

Boone doesn't reveal such political ambition. Her staff of three full-time and three part-time deputies is relatively small compared to other Illinois county coroner offices. Her selling point is that she's been in the coroner's office for 26 years, starting as a deputy coroner and secretary under Richter. When Richter retired in 1995, he endorsed Boone.

"I've been here so long it's become a way of life for me," she says. She's gone from the filing cabinet to the autopsy room.

Boone, who earns about $70,000 a year as coroner, has no college degree but she's taken courses at Illinois Western University and Lincoln Land Community College. She says she enrolls in at least 40 hours of continuing education courses a year, a combination of law enforcement, coroner training, and death scene investigation classes on "ballistics to serial killers. Really neat stuff," she says.

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If you took a look at Jerry Compton's background, you might guess he's always wanted to be coroner. For the past 35 years, Compton, 58, has worked for MMC's surgical and anatomical pathology lab. He earned a bachelor's in social justice from Sangamon State University (now University of Illinois at Springfield) and graduated from the now-defunct Gradwhol School of Laboratory Technique in St. Louis. He's a member of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists and national and state histotechnology societies (histology is the study of tissue). He's also completed death investigation and crime scene coursework ranging from gunshot and stab wounds to bite mark cases and forensic pathology. He's also worked alongside Travis Hindman, a Springfield forensic pathologist who performs autopsies for the coroner, and the late Grant Johnson, a local pathologist with whom Compton accompanied to crime scenes and lectures.

"Right now I'm running on my qualifications," Compton says. He has no specific criticisms of Boone's performance but says he'll be issuing a monthly press release outlining his plans to bring the coroner's office to "a higher standard." He says he first seriously considered running for coroner four years ago when Boone ran unopposed.

"It's time for a change," he says.

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