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Robert McCarthy: Judge Curtin's remarkable dedication to Buffalo

They gathered at St. Joseph University Church Saturday for a farewell to Jack Curtin, the federal judge whose name will always appear in any history book ever written about this town.

Buffalo News reporter Dan Herbeck may have captured Curtin best in his obituary a week ago, describing him as “a slightly built man with twinkling blue eyes, a gentle wit and a humble demeanor … known for his decisions on racial discrimination, environmental issues and other controversies.”

And, oh yes, there also was that episode as a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II.
Controversies, indeed. Curtin’s rulings in the 1970s led to integration, magnet schools and busing in the Buffalo Public Schools and forced minority hiring quotas in the city schools, police force and fire department.

Lots of people did not like Curtin. Others lionized him.

Neither view made any difference to him. In the ultimate mark of a respected jurist, he interpreted the law and applied it fairly.

The obits and official records won’t record everything about Curtin, who died on April 14 at 95. Like his devotion to the community he called home for his entire life. Even in his last months and sidelined by a host of ailments, Curtin would often contact the Politics Column to weigh in on some issue.

Never politics, even to the Politics Column. Curtin cared more about waterfront development and safeguarding its shoreline for migratory birds.

He passionately advocated expanding Metro Rail to the suburbs and waterfront, occasionally penning a letter of support to Everybody’s Column in The News.

Even at 95, Curtin backed Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority efforts for extension of Metro Rail to Amherst. The proposal may take a decade to realize, and the judge knew he would not be around to ever ride the new line.

But he saw the extension as good for the community. That’s all that mattered to Curtin.
George Borrelli, retired political reporter for The News who penned the Politics Column for many years, recalled a few days ago how Curtin’s long tenure on the Buffalo federal bench might never have occurred. When President Lyndon B. Johnson was originally contemplating a judicial appointment, most speculation centered around Buffalo’s Peter J. Crotty.

Crotty had just finished a long run as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. He had been close to President John F. Kennedy as well as Robert F. Kennedy, then New York’s junior senator.
Borrelli recalled that RFK had recommended Crotty for the federal bench, but ran into similar problems encountered by his brother in neighboring Massachusetts. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s candidate for judge had been rejected there by the American Bar Association.

After promising he would not support any candidate who failed to win ABA approval, RFK now found himself dealing with the same legal eagles over the Crotty appointment,

“The ABA sent an investigator named Clyde LaPorte to check out Peter Crotty,” Borrelli said a few days ago. “When he came here, he met with Alfred H. Kirchhofer and Charlie Diebold, both blood enemies of Peter Crotty.”

Kirchhofer was the staunchly Republican editor of The News. Diebold was president and chairman of Western Savings Bank. Neither liked the former Dem chairman. It’s easy to connect the dots from there.

“The ABA refused to recommend Crotty for the judgeship, and Bobby Kennedy had promised not to recommend anyone not OK’d by the ABA,” Borrelli recalled. “So Peter fell by the wayside, and that opened the door for John Curtin.”

Things like that happened in politics, even for a powerful party boss who played pivotal roles in electing JFK as president and RFK as senator.

And nothing in politics ever ranks as a sure thing.

Maybe Crotty would have ranked as a fine judge. Maybe his name would have been etched in Buffalo history books, too.

But nobody can deny Jack Curtin left his own unique mark.

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