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Colorful coroner closes career in McHenry County

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WOODSTOCK – At age 6, Marlene Lantz knew she wanted to be an undertaker.

On the radio, there had been a show called Fibber McGee and Molly, with a character named Digger O’Dell, who was the “friendly undertaker.”

“My family started calling me Digger when I was 6,” Lantz said.

Although her mother thought she would, Lantz didn’t grow out of her curiosity with death.

On Friday, at age 65, she wrapped up nearly two-and-a-half decades as coroner after not seeking another term. Dr. Anne Majewski was elected to take over after running unopposed.

After high school, Lantz attended Elgin Community College for about a year before attending mortuary school. After working in a funeral home, she became a morgue assistant and helped with autopsies.

Lantz didn’t win her first bid for office, which she and her then-husband had financed with $200 saved from grocery money. She lost to Alvin Querhammer, who then hired her as chief deputy in 1980.

Eight years later, she ran again and began her 24 years as McHenry County coroner.

It was still a man’s world at that time, Lantz said, with one county official telling her that she should be “at home making babies and doing dishes.”

“It was kind of like I was used to it, not being accepted right away and having to prove myself,” Lantz said. “I think it made me better.”

She also served a two-week stint as sheriff when George Hendle retired and before the County Board appointed his replacement.

Lantz hasn’t been afraid to ruffle political feathers, such as butting heads with McHenry County State’s Attorney Louis Bianchi.

Lantz disagreed with Bianchi’s office’s handling of exhumations of several bodies connected to a Woodstock nursing home. A nurse and her supervisor ultimately were charged in that case. The nurse eventually accepted a plea deal and probation while her boss was acquitted at trial.

Perhaps the most infamous case for Lantz was Charles Albanese, a Spring Grove man convicted in the early 1980s of killing three of his family members by using arsenic.

Lantz was heavily involved in the investigation, including performing surveillance, and she put the handcuffs on Albanese’s wrists.

She also watched him die in 1995 when she attended his execution – the last McHenry County case that ended with the death penalty, which has since been abolished.

Arsenic poisoning is an extremely agonizing, painful way to die, Lantz said, and the murders were motivated by control over the family business, as well as stocks and insurance payouts.

“I thought that [Albanese’s] execution in reality was really too easy because they just gave him a shot and he went to sleep,” Lantz said. “Maybe the mental aspect of it, knowing you’re going to die, maybe that’s even more horrendous than the actual shot, but he made those people suffer.”

Lantz also remembers the family of a murder victim killed by her ex-boyfriend.

John Cumbee, a former police officer, firefighter and paramedic in Lake County, was first convicted of bludgeoning his ex-girlfriend, Kathleen Twarowski, to death in 1992.

Cumbee was found guilty of first-degree murder at his first trial in 1993, but Illinois appellate court justices overturned the conviction because a judge failed to properly instruct jurors about the case’s venue.

Cumbee was sentenced to life in prison after his second trial in 2003, and is being held at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

Lantz’s job by its nature and definition deals with the macabre, meeting friends and family members of the deceased at the worst times of their lives.

When the phone rang at 4 in the morning, she knew it was because someone had died.

Coroners and their staff are not there to deliver a baby, take out someone’s tonsils, or save a life – but they provide an important public service.

“Can we do something else to prevent this from happening again, from somebody else following in this same path?” Lantz said. “Can we help this family through this so they don’t hurt themselves? What can we do to make it better?”

Lantz waited to crack open a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon given to her by a former state’s attorney 26 years ago.

On Friday, that day came.

Lantz offered some parting words as her time in office drew to a close, her last shift ending today at 8 a.m.

“Don’t take drugs if your name’s not on them. Wear your seat belt. Drive carefully, and just realize how precious life is,” she said. “Not to sound hokey, but I thank God when my feet hit the floor in the morning.”

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