Colleagues of Judge Frank McCaffrey, who died Saturday at age 82, said he found many ways to serve his community.
“It’s hard to put Frank McCaffrey into any kind of capsule of information,” Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber said. “He was a good friend, not just to me but to all the judges in the state. ... He was consistent, he was empathetic, he was compassionate. He was a remarkable person.”
A long-serving Vermont judge, McCaffrey is most recently known for helping to establish the drug court system and then presiding over it in Rutland as a volunteer. He presided over a number of high-profile cases in his time — the murder trial of Charles Crannell, convicted in 1995 of killing a romantic rival in Castleton, and the drug charges against John Zaccaro Jr., son of former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro being among them.
“He’d tell you the story the next day should never be about the judge,” said Judge Cortland Corsones. “It should be about the case, about the facts, about the arguments, about the law. Never the judge.”
McCaffrey was also known for his level of community involvement, particularly working alongside his wife Rita McCaffrey in the creation of Dismas House and volunteering to preside over Rutland’s drug court after retiring as the state’s administrative judge in 2003.
Mayor David Allaire, who called McCaffrey’s death a loss for the community, said he was impressed with McCaffrey’s manner after sitting in on a drug court session about a year ago.
“You could tell he had a lot of empathy for the people who were going through it,” Allaire said. “There was a lot of back-and-forth for the people there and himself.”
Born in Queens, New York City, McCaffrey came to Vermont to attend Saint Michael’s College, where he met his wife, who was attending the nearby Trinity College. He went back to New York to attend law school at Fordham University. After graduating in 1961, he practiced law in New York, New Hampshire and Rutland.
Glen Morgan, head of the Rutland County Bar Association, said he and McCaffrey would drive together to hearings where they would be in opposition to each other.
“I enjoyed his company that much,” Morgan said. “Anything he had to say, I took to heart, not only as an attorney, but as a parent.”
McCaffrey was appointed to the bench in the early 1980s, and a short time later he and Rita visited the original Dismas House, a facility for re-integrating former prisoners into the community, in Tennessee. McCaffrey supported his wife as she led the effort to establish the group in Vermont in the mid-’80s. He was an active volunteer and continued to serve as a member of the board of directors until his death.
“He was right there beside her through it all,” Rutland Dismas House director Terese Black said. “He was a voice of wisdom. ... He’d sit on the bench as a judge and then did dishes side-by-side with residents who had last seen him in court.”
Black said she knew McCaffrey as a humble, hardworking man whose faith ran deep.
“I treasured moments talking to him,” she said. “My kids grew up calling him ‘the funny man’ and not knowing he was a judge.”
Terri Corsones, who worked with McCaffrey in a variety of capacities in the court system, said McCaffrey’s religious faith was a driving force in his life.
“He believed God put us on Earth to serve others and he lived that,” she said. “... The Rutland drug court succeeded because of him.”
Peg Flory, who served several years on the Judicial Nominating Board, said that candidates who were asked what judge they might pick to emulate as a role model picked McCaffrey and/or the late Judge Frank Mahady “over and over again.”
“He had the same ability Mahady had — he could talk to anybody at exactly their level,” she said. “He never talked down to them. He never talked up to them. That’s a talent.”
Judge Corsones was one of those who used McCaffrey as a role model.
“He had such a great demeanor, and it’s not always easy, in court, to be that way,” he said. “He always really cared about the people as people and what they were going through.”
Reiber said he counted McCaffrey as a mentor.
“When I came in, as a trial lawyer, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the courts,” the Chief Justice said. “No way. It’s an enormous undertaking. He took me under his wing to help me understand the challenges not only of the trial work, but the challenges of government service.”
Flory worked with McCaffrey for a year and a half to create the drug court system when she was a member of the Legislature, but she said they went back much further than that. Her father was the janitor at Immaculate Heart of Mary, where McCaffrey went to church.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” she said. “My dad thought he walked on water, and so did I. If there was something you needed to get done in the church, you called him, and he would do it.”
One of McCaffrey’s key contributions to the drug court, she said, was making sure the system “accepted occasional failure.”
“People are not perfect,” she said. “You should expect there are occasionally going to be some failures where someone is going to test positive. It doesn’t mean you kick them out of the program. It means you give them additional support.”
Flory said she believed that attitude was a product of McCaffrey’s work at Dismas House.
“He brought not only the legal knowledge, but also, and more importantly to me, a knowledge of people,” she said.
Judge Corsones said the drug court seemed like a perfect fit for McCaffrey because it was full of people who needed someone to listen. It also, Corsones said, gave McCaffrey another chance to help people.
“He would say the highs are so high when you see someone get their child back, get their housing back, get their life back,” he said. “Sometimes, they break your heart, too ... sometimes they don’t recover. You could see that was hard on him.”
Corsones said that on the Tuesdays when McCaffrey presided over drug court, all the judges in the building that day would always stop in to talk to him.
“It was always an experience,” he said. “First, he’d want to talk about the Red Sox. ... Then he’d work into the conversation ‘How’s your fastball?’ or ‘How’s your curveball breaking?’ meaning how’s your day going. ... You would leave from talking to him with a smile on your face.”