Originally published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and Lawrence Eagle-Tribune
Broad smiles and bitter tears intermingled by turns as the St. Augustine congregation remembered John E. Fenton, Jr. during his recent funeral service. “How do you bury a giant?” the celebrant rhetorically asked the gathered mourners who were comprised of family, a lifetime supply of friends, and more lawyers than were in attendance in any Massachusetts courthouse at that same hour. Not unlike the law professor’s well-worn technique of stimulating thought in the classroom, the priest’s inquiry got me thinking about exactly what it was that made Judge Fenton so beloved by so many. I looked around the colossal church and saw the pews filled with a genuine conglomerate of old and young, black and white, the well-heeled and the less fortunate, all uniformly grieving for the loss of this one man. That our small corner of the world had lost a supremely accomplished lawyer, jurist, administrator, professor, and Dean was patently evident. But there have been others who were arguable as accomplished whose passing didn’t evoke the emotion and the profound sense of loss as did Judge Fenton’s. This pondering caused me to recall my very first encounter with Judge Fenton and therein I found the answer that I had been searching for.
It was 1985 and I was working part-time as a title examiner while beginning my first year of law school at Suffolk. In between classes, I would walk to the “old courthouse” (now known as the John Adams Courthouse), take the elevator to the 5th floor, and perform a quick title rundown at the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds. At that time, the building was equipped with the quaint amenity of an elevator operator, (despite the fact that anyone, even a pre-schooler, could satisfactorily operate the cramped and rather decrepit elevator with the simple push of a button). Nonetheless, I would see the same operator day after day. I recall him being dour in appearance; no doubt the manifestation of years of monotony attendant to his imprisonment in that tiny, if mobile cell. His foreboding demeanor discouraged me from trying to speak with him or even bothering to learn his name. In truth, the only thing that kept him from being rendered totally invisible to his daily passengers was the necessity of instructing him which floor one needed to reach so that he could push the corresponding button.
One winter day as I was once again ascending the heights of the old courthouse in complete silence, Judge Fenton unexpectedly boarded our elevator on the 2nd floor. He greeted our operator like a long lost war buddy, shook his hand with gusto, called him by name, (it turned out his name was “Timmy”), and thrust a Christmas gift into his hands-all before departing the elevator on the 4th floor where he was to preside over the Land Court. For the first time, I witnessed the operator with a warm, generous smile and animated disposition. He seemed to magically if temporarily come to life. “He’s aces,” he said to no one in particular, elated at having been recognized and acknowledged and appreciated.
The entire encounter took less than 30 seconds but I’ve remembered it for the past 30 years. It’s the way that he treated people, all people, that set Judge Fenton apart from others who may boast of similar professional accomplishments. It was the “eloquence of his example” over the course of his long life that was his greatest legacy to hundreds of wannabe lawyers like me. And, it was the unalloyed decency with which he lived his everyday life that caused the pews at St. Augustine’s church to be filled to overflowing. The mourners in attendance may have been disparate but there remained much upon which they could readily agree: a good man had died; their lives had been enriched beyond measure for having known him; and, they could never forget him or the kindness that he so routinely dispensed. In the final analysis, Timmy long ago gave voice to what the congregation was thinking in our collective moment of grief: he was aces.
originally published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and Lawrence Eagle-Tribune