Some remembered him as a powerful federal judge for nearly a half-century, making decisions that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Some recalled him as a loving family man, a caring friend or respected colleague.
Others simply remembered John T. Curtin as a humble guy who took the bus to work, kept his number in the telephone book, knew people from every walk of life and never talked down to anyone.
A Mass of Christian Burial for the retired federal judge, who died earlier this month at age 95, was celebrated at one of his favorite churches, the St. Joseph University Church on Main Street. About 300 people packed the church to attend an emotional service that featured more laughs than tears.
Among those in attendance were members of the judge's very large family, more than two dozen federal and state judges, many of Curtin's former law clerks and federal court employees, and lawyers who came to show their respect for one of the longest-serving judges in Western New York history.
Several people at the service, including Rep. Brian Higgins, predicted that Curtin will be remembered as one of the most important historical figures in this region over the past 50 years.
"I believe he will go down as the most consequential federal jurist from Western New York since Robert Jackson," Higgins said before the service. "And he happened to be from South Buffalo."
"This man set the bar for other judges in this area. He forever changed our community and made it a better place," said attorney Margaret Murphy, who fought tears as she described how honored she was to practice before Curtin.
"He made me proud to be a lawyer," she said.
Two people who were close to the judge – his daughter, Mary Ellen Curtin, and Monsignor Patrick Keleher – were the main speakers at the Mass, offering warm and humorous tributes.
Keleher spoke about the judge's deep devotion to his family – including his wife, Jane, and seven sons and daughters – and to the Catholic religion.
Calling Curtin an "honest, respectful and admirable man," Keleher told of the great respect Curtin had for the late Robert F. Kennedy, the former New York senator who helped him to become a judge.
The priest read a portion of a 1966 speech in which Kennedy said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Those were words that Curtin lived by, Keleher said.
An energetic speaker, Mary Ellen Curtin drew many laughs and had a few people in tears as she talked about what it was like to grow up in the Curtin family. She said her mother, who married Curtin in 1952, was a powerful force in his life.
"Without Jane Curtin, there would have been no Judge Curtin," she said.
She said her father was proud of his service in World War II, when he joined the Marines, became a pilot and flew 35 combat missions in the South Pacific.
But the judge never bragged about it, and seldom discussed details of his wartime activities, she said.
"He was not a nostalgic person," she said of her father. "He believed in change … moving forward."
She said her father so loved to read and research things that he endured two dangerous medical procedures in his 90s so he could continue to read.
"Dad, we loved you so much, and we will very much miss your light," she said.
After the 90-minute Mass, many longtime friends stood in the aisles of the church and swapped stories about a judge whose rulings on racial discrimination, environmental issues, war protests and crime had a powerful influence on his community. They remembered a man who sometimes dealt with death threats because some of his decisions upset people.
Attorney James P. Harrington, a close friend, said Curtin was one of the last of “The Greatest Generation.” He described the judge as a man of moral courage, intellectual honesty and incredible humility who would have been embarrassed by all the kind words that people said after his death.
Collette Schoellkopf, whose husband, William, was the judge's longest-serving law clerk, remembered a story of Curtin's courage and willingness to endure criticism.
"The judge was reviled by some people in South Buffalo, but every year, he went to the Shamrock Run, all by himself, and participated, because he loved that run," she said. "He took heat from some people, heard some nasty words, but the judge always said people were entitled to their opinion, whether they agreed with him or not."
William Schoellkopf said he admired Curtin because of his humanity and his devotion as a civil servant.
"When he became a senior judge, he could have worked as little as he wanted and still collected his full pay," Schoellkopf said. "But the judge kept working full time for as long as he could. I hope he is remembered as a hard-working public servant who strived every day to do the right thing."
Raymond Granger, another former Curtin law clerk who traveled from New York City to attend the funeral, recalled Curtin walking into his office one day and saying, "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night because I worry about all the power I have over people's lives."
"He always wanted to do the right thing," Granger said. "I wish every judge felt so strongly about it."
One of the many judges at the service was U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott, the first African-American to serve on the federal bench in Western New York.
"Without Judge Curtin, I don’t think I would ever have become a federal judge," Scott said. "He helped knock down so many barriers."
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