When U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin retired at the age of 94, his caseload, a docket that included two of his landmark desegregation cases, went to the new kid on the bench, Lawrence J. Vilardo.
Even then, Vilardo, unlike a lot of people, understood the significance of what he was taking on, not to mention the legacy he was following.
Curtin, who served as U.S. District Judge for 48 years, died Friday. He was 95.
"It wasn't just the length of his service, it was the breadth of what he did," Vilardo said. "I really think he's a legend in the legal community, and I think he'll be remembered as a good judge and a good man."
On that day after Curtin's retirement, when Vilardo learned he was taking over Curtin's caseload, he went to the judge's home and thanked him.
"It really was an honor to take over the docket of someone who is larger than life," Vilardo said Friday.
On the day he died, Curtin was remembered by a fellow South Buffalo native for the friendship he gave a brand-new member of Congress.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said he worked closely with Curtin on the naming of the Robert H. Jackson Courthouse downtown, but he was always prouder of the relationship that grew out of their work together.
"Judge Curtin befriended a neophyte congressman," Higgins said in a statement, "initiating personal correspondence on issues of the day that continued until shortly before his passing, staying in touch and sharing ideas about Buffalo's waterfront and the city he held so dear."
Among the lawyers and judges who worked with him, Curtin will always be remembered for a resume with no shortage of landmark court decisions.
And in every one of them, he touched the lives of people, whether it be young children in Buffalo's segregated schools or families living with environmental disaster in Niagara Falls.
"He cared about individuals," said Chief U.S. District Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr., "and the bottom line is he always tried hard to get it right."
Geraci pointed to the long and lasting impact of Curtin's decisions, and the profound respect he enjoyed among his fellow lawyers and judges, to suggest that "he is certainly an icon in the legal community."
Curtin, who retired last year after nearly five decades as a U.S. District Court judge, left a legacy that included the desegregation of Buffalo's schools, as well as its police and fire departments, a move that ushered in a new generation of women and minority officers and firefighters.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Curtin oversaw a huge lawsuit about toxic waste dumped in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls. The case led to the relocation of hundreds of residents and became a national rallying cry for environmentalists.
"He was always a man with the greatest perspective on everything, whether it was a court case or something personal," said Janet Curry, a longtime staff member.
"He was brilliant, rational and a caring and sensitive person," Curry added. "He always understood, always took everything into consideration and I think that's what made him a great judge."
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