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'JB' Walsh dies; noted figure in law, government and the arts

John B. "JB" Walsh, a major figure in Democratic politics, legal circles and the arts for more than half a century, died Sunday at his Orchard Park home following a long illness. He was 89.

Until his long struggle with diabetes sidelined him a few years ago, Mr. Walsh loomed large in government, lobbying, and the law, locally and throughout New York State. For many years, he brokered complex legal problems for top officials like former Mayor Frank A. Sedita, and later as a lobbyist for the City of Buffalo, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Ecology & Environment Inc., Buffalo Naval and Military Park and other major clients.

Indeed, Mr. Walsh proved a ubiquitous presence at legal gatherings, political fundraisers and the halls of the State Capitol on his trademark electric scooter that aided his mobility when walking became difficult. Along the way, he became the confidante of mayors dating to Sedita and governors stretching back to Nelson A. Rockefeller.

"JB was a legend from old school politics, government and the law," said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence. "Everybody knew him by a smile, a witty thought and his songs about the politics of yesteryear and today. He will be missed by Republicans as well as his beloved Democratic Party."

Mayor Byron W. Brown remembered Mr. Walsh " warm and friendly and knowledgeable."

"He was almost like a favorite uncle and was also welcome in my office with or without an appointment," the mayor said. "He always had great ideas, suggestions and encouragement.  He will be very fondly remembered by all who knew him."

Gregarious, learned, and a friend to many, the Buffalo native graduated from Canisius High School in 1945, beginning a long association with the Jesuit Order that continued throughout his life. He served in the Army in Washington immediately following World War II before returning home to attend Canisius College, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1950. He received his law degree from Georgetown University in 1952, was admitted to the bar in 1953 and to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958.

Mr. Walsh's legal career ran a wide gamut. He worked as a law clerk in Washington and New York City and again in New York City as a trial attorney. In 1955 he returned to Buffalo to eventually become a partner in the law firm of Jaeckle, Fleischmann, Kelly, Swart and Augsberger. In 1960 he went to Washington once again as a trial counsel with the Anti-Trust Division of the Justice Department, before returning to Buffalo as executive secretary of the Erie County Bar Association.

In 1967 he returned to private law practice and high-profile clients like those seeking a Major League Baseball franchise for Buffalo, and was involved in a range of legal and Bar Association activities. He established the county's assigned counsel system and co-hosted the Bar Association's "The Law and You" television show.

Mr. Walsh was published in legal and scholarly journals throughout his career and lectured around the country on various topics, especially on providing counsel to the poor. And as a lobbyist he contributed major input to critical issues of his time, wangling $5 million from the state for the City of Buffalo in 1972 by selling "reversionary" rights to the Buffalo airport, obtaining more flexibility for city governments like Buffalo's, and establishing May elections for the switch to an elected Board of Education to avoid intersecting with partisan contests.

Mr. Walsh loomed large in other circles, too, including theater and music. When Buffalo's old Capitol Hill Club staged its annual political spoofs in the 1960s and 1970s, it turned to Mr. Walsh to compose the music and lyrics. Even in his last days, especially during his weekly Saturday lunch gatherings with friends at the Boomerang Restaurant, he would often throw back his head and break into one of his old songs featuring long-gone political names like Sedita, B. John Tutuska or Delmar Mitchell.

He once even dashed into his burning office to retrieve lyrics for the 1961 Capitol Hill show, telling a reporter it would have taken him days to recapture the songs he had written during four inspired hours the night before. And in his own theatrical way, he joined with other Irish-Americans in 1966 to meet with Canada's governor general and soothe "ill feelings" still stemming from the Fenian Raid that originated from Buffalo 100 years earlier.

He also was a producer for the Grand Island Playhouse and in international festivals in Monaco.

An ardent Democrat, he unsuccessfully ran as one of the party's candidates for State Supreme Court in 1968.

In 1966 he married the former Barbara Ashford, a reporter for The News, who died in 2001. He is survived by a daughter, Martha, and a grandson.

A Memorial Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Feb. 20 (Mr. Walsh's 90th birthday) at St. Michael's Catholic Church, 651 Washington St.

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