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'Brilliant' judge, avid skier and community servant Joseph Koletsky dead at 82

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Waterford — Superior Court Judge Joseph Q. Koletsky, described by his colleagues as a brilliant man who loved the law and by his wife as a wonderful husband, father and travel companion, died Saturday at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. He was 82.

Ann Koletsky, his wife of 58 years, said Koletsky is in a "a much better place."

He had been suffering from dementia, and contracted COVID-19 in March after being released from a hospital stay to the Bride Brook nursing home. He had returned home to Waterford, but last week was hospitalized for seizures that likely resulted from the combination of COVID and dementia, Ann Koletsky said.

They had three daughters, Mary Beth, Joann and Kate; and three granddaughters.

Koletsky had lived a full life that included more than 30 years of service in the U.S. Navy, first on active duty and then in the Navy Reserves, and years of public service on boards and commissions in the Town of Waterford. He and his wife had a modest condominium in Vermont and enjoyed 50 winters of skiing together and years of traveling all over the world. He especially loved to go to Italy, where Ann Koletsky said he had become "travel fluent" in the native language.

The couple met when she was 18 and he was 19. He was living in the Westville section of New Haven and working as a lifeguard at the New Haven Country Club. Koletsky was an avid swimmer.

A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, he was nominated to the bench by Gov. William A. O'Neill in October 1985. At the time, he was a partner in the New London law firm of Copp, Koletsky and Barall.

Prior to becoming a judge, Koletsky had been an active member of the Republican party in Waterford, serving on two building committees and charter revision commissions. He served on the Waterford Board of Education from 1969 to 1973. He rejoined the school board 10 years later to fill a vacancy and was finishing a term as the school board chairman when he was nominated to the bench.

He loved being a judge, where he was able to "level the playing field," said his wife. He was admired by his colleagues and continued to join them for weekly lunches even after he retired in June 2019.

"I had enormous respect for Judge Koletsky," said Hillary B. Strackbein, chief administrative judge for the New London Judicial District. "In fact, I found it difficult to call him Joe because of my respect for him. He was brilliant and loved the law. He used to come into my chambers for candy, and he would regale me with stories of all his ski trips and travels. He led a wonderful and often exciting life. He will really be missed."

"He was a wonderful colleague," said Judge Emmet L. Cosgrove. "He was very respected in the courthouse for the scope of his legal knowledge in civil and criminal matters, and he was a strict but fair trial judge. His door was always open if you wanted to talk about a difficult legal issue that you were grappling with. He was always very helpful."

Lawyers who appeared before Koletsky knew they had to be "on their game" since he often asked probing questions from the bench, Cosgrove said.

"You knew you were going to have a dialogue and you'd better be prepared," said Cosgrove.

Koletsky also was able to hear cases, apply the law and render decisions directly from the bench rather than adjourn to write a decision.

"He articulated the reason why he was making the decision clearly," said Cosgrove. "That was a rare skill."

While many judges tend to specialize in either civil or criminal cases, Koletsky was proficient in both. His wife said he presided over 12 cases where the death penalty was in play. She said she tried to talk him out of trying those cases, since she was opposed to the death penalty, but that he "believed in the system." In all 12 cases, jurors decided against the death penalty, according to Ann Koletsky.

Even as he grew weaker in recent years, Koletsky continued skiing with an "adaptive" coach who helped him navigate the slopes. His wife Ann said the program was designed for people with disabilities to ski on the easiest hill, but that Koletsky would talk them into taking him to a higher slope.

The family plans to hold a celebration of life for Koletsky once the danger of the coronavirus passes.

k.florin@theday.com

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