Cavanaugh looks for new ways to serve

Above: Sen. John Cavanaugh with his wife, Kakie, and their children Evelyn, Jack, Lucy and William.

Sen. John Cavanaugh is an Omaha kid, through and through. Number five of eight children born to John and Kate Cavanaugh, he currently represents the same legislative district that his father represented from 1972 to 1976.

For a guy born and raised in Omaha, who grew up cheering for the Creighton Bluejays, attending law school at Creighton University seemed like a foregone conclusion. Living and working in Omaha and building his family here was always in the plan.

So after graduating from Creighton Preparatory School and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he returned home to the inevitable next step. But an algorithm landed Cavanaugh in South Royalton, Vermont instead, much to his surprise.

“I thought I was going to Creighton. And then I took an online survey that said I was a 100 percent match for Vermont Law School,” Cavanaugh said. “And I said ‘that’s ridiculous.’”

John, Sr. — a Creighton Law School graduate himself — encouraged Cavanaugh to get in touch with his former law school classmate Pat, an instructor at Vermont Law School. It was that conversation and a subsequent visit to the picturesque campus that sealed the deal. Having his new wife, Kakie McGill, close by at Dartmouth certainly helped.

After graduating from “the most beautiful law school in the world,” Cavanaugh and McGill briefly settled in Washington, D.C. before returning to Omaha to marry, begin their careers and start their family. Both come from large families who still call Omaha home.

The couple and their four children are particularly fond of exploring Fontanelle Forest, Joslyn Castle, Durham Museum and the Omaha Children’s Museum. Unfortunately, the weekly big family dinners full of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are on hold for now due to the pandemic.

“That’s the reason we wanted to be in Omaha and had our kids here. We wanted them to be able to spend that time with their grandparents and cousins,” he said.

His election to the Legislature — joining his sister, Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh — is his first foray into elected office, although his work as a public defender in Douglas County has more than prepared him for a life of public service.

“The people who become public defenders and do it for any length of time do it because they truly believe that every person deserves adequate representation and deserves to have their rights protected,” Cavanaugh said.

Advocating on behalf of others — whether it be in the courtroom or the legislative chamber — can be hard work, he said, but remembering his guiding purpose makes the workload a little lighter.

“I think it would be hard to imagine a better training ground for public service like this than being a public defender, because it really is about advocacy for the best ideas, regardless of your personal feelings,” he said. “I’m always going to try to pursue what I think is the best public policy.”

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