Published March 25. 2014 2:15PM Updated March 26. 2014 9:55AM
Superior Court Judge Joseph J. Purtill, who enjoyed a long and varied career in public service, died Tuesday at age 86.
His co-workers at the Huntington Street Courthouse in New London were saddened to hear that Purtill, who heard cases up until about two weeks ago, had passed away.
"We've lost a very wise and humble servant," said Emmet L. Cosgrove, chief administrative judge for the judicial district.
Purtill continued to work beyond the judges' mandatory retirement age of 70, serving as a judge trial referee, a position in which both sides of a dispute would have to agree that he could hear a case. Because of his reputation for fairness, few attorneys declined to have him preside over their matters.
His family was not surprised that Purtill continued to go to work long after he "retired" from the bench.
"He really, really liked it," said his son, Joseph Purtill Jr. "He loved the law."
The son said that as word of the judge's death got out Tuesday, a lot of people contacted the family.
"He was a compassionate man with a sense of humor," Purtill Jr. said.
Purtill had heard cases in Hartford and New Haven courts as well as New London, where he served stints as the presiding judge for criminal matters and the administrative judge.
Judge Elliot N. Solomon, the state's deputy chief court administrator, said Purtill's passing is a great loss to the Connecticut judiciary.
"He heard criminal, civil, family and juvenile matters throughout a distinguished career of 35 years on the bench," Solomon said. "Although he presided over many high-profile matters, Judge Purtill understood that every case was important to the people involved and handled each matter with dignity and respect for all involved."
A native of Stonington, Purtill enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in 1945. By the time he completed basic training, the war was over, his son said, and the Navy didn't need him. Purtill joined the Marine Corps Reserves. He performed his active duty during summer vacations and retired as a colonel in the mid 1980s, according to his son.
Purtill graduated in 1950 from St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vt., with a bachelor's degree in history. He received his law degree from the University of Connecticut in 1953. He was admitted to the Connecticut Bar the same year.
"I've known him since he was town clerk in Stonington," said Judge Robert C. Leuba, his close friend and regular lunchtime companion. "I always thought he was one of the more intelligent lawyers in New London County."
Purtill served as town clerk and town attorney in Stonington for 17 years and ran a private legal practice until he was appointed to the bench by the late Gov. Ella T. Grasso in 1979. He had been recommended for the bench by the town's longtime first selectman, James M. Spellman, a member of the state's Democratic state central committee, who said Purtill had the background and temperament to be a judge.
He spent the bulk of his judicial career presiding over criminal matters. State's Attorney Michael L. Regan said Purtill, who has been a judge for as long as Regan has been a lawyer, was a pleasure to try cases in front of and would be sorely missed.
"He was right to the point in his decisions, whether he ruled in favor of you or not," Regan said.
Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence J. Tytla said he did his first five trials in front of Purtill and considered it a great learning experience.
"He was the best," Tytla said. "He was one of the last of the old-school judges, but really in the best sense of the word. He was stable, firm. You knew what to expect from him."
Bruce A. Sturman, New London's chief public defender, said he had known Purtill since the early 1980s and was always impressed by his calmness, intelligence and dry sense of humor. Purtill and Sturman were partners at the annual bocce tournament organized by Judicial Marshal Frank Pucci, playing together for the last time in September 2013.
"We never got by the first round," Sturman said.
Judge Patrick J. Clifford said he tried cases before Purtill while working as a prosecutor in New Haven, then had the opportunity to work with him as a judge during several assignments in New London.
"He was sharp, unassuming, a wonderful jurist," Clifford said. "He could make a point without having to raise his voice."
Judge Leuba said Purtill was anxious to be of service as a judge trial referee and established a routine that kept him productive. He went to the Norwich courthouse on Thursdays to do the uncontested divorce docket. On Fridays he sat in the juvenile court in Waterford. Back in New London, he handled the default judgment docket, which involved mostly collections matters. And he was specialist in administrative appeals of zoning matters, Leuba said.
Purtill's routine also included lunch hours spent with Leuba and other judges. They rotated among a few local restaurants, and at each place, Purtill had a favorite dish that he ordered every time, Leuba said.
Purtill had suffered from medical problems for a number of years but never complained, his co-workers and son said. His wife, Katherine D. Purtill, died in 2008.
In addition to his son Joseph, he is survived by daughter-in-law Susan and grandson Ryan, all of Waterford, daughter Jane Purtill and her husband Mark Furst of Mansfield, Mass.; daughter Mary Anne Purtill and son John D. Purtill of Pawcatuck.
The family said a wake would be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Gaffney-Dolan Funeral Home in Westerly. A Funeral Mass will take place at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Mary Church in Stonington.