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Judge Seymour Hendel mourned in New London

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New London — Superior Court Judge Seymour L. Hendel, a city native who devoted his life to family, law and charitable works, died Sunday at his home, at age 89.

Superior Court Judge Seymour L. Hendel
Superior Court Judge Seymour L. Hendel.

His wife of 69 years, Patricia, said by phone Tuesday morning that Judge Hendel had suffered a stroke.  

"He went into the hospital four weeks ago Sunday," she said. "The day before, we'd gone out to dinner with friends and took a long walk. He was not sick at all."

The couple had remained active during the judge's retirement years, traveling alone and with their children and grandchildren, bicycle riding and skiing with friends, and faithfully attending UConn women's basketball home games and the Metropolitan Opera.

"We lived a very full life," said Patricia Hendel, a former Democratic state representative. "The kids would always say, 'Mom, when are you and Dad going to slow down and go home?' And I'd say, 'I haven't got time for that.'"

Her husband had spent four weeks in the hospital, first at Lawrence + Memorial, then at Yale New-Haven, and was released to be home with his childhood sweetheart last Thursday. Seymour and Patricia Hendel both grew up in New London's south end and attended the Harbor School. They started dating while he was attending the Bulkeley School for boys and she was at the Williams Memorial Institute for girls.

He went to Yale, and she to Connecticut College, but they both transferred to New York City after a year, Patricia Hendel said, she attending the Barnard College for women and he attending Columbia University. They were married at age 19. Upon graduating in 1953, he enrolled at Harvard Law School while she worked at Harvard's business school. He worked for a Boston law firm before coming home to New London to open his own general law practice with attorney Lawrence Greenberg.

He was nominated to the Superior Court Bench in 1978 by Gov. Ella T. Grasso and presided over criminal and civil cases for nearly four decades, serving most recently as a judge trial referee. 

He presided over major criminal cases, including the early court appearances of serial killer Michael Ross and the murder-for-hire cases of James Y. Hope and John McGann, who were hired by Geraldine Burke to kill her husband, Donald, in 1981.

Hendel's family was prominent in business and philanthropic pursuits, at one point owning several companies, including Hendel's Inc., which included the local chain of Henny Penny gas station and convenience stores, and Americana Furniture Barn in Waterford. Hendel's late brother, Myron, had operated the businesses day to day while he pursued a career in law, which his wife joked is sort of "a family disease," since all three of their children, Douglas, Clifford and Caroline, went on to become lawyers.

Seymour Hendel was a founder and first president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater New London, now known as the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, and was past president of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. He supported a number of organizations, including Temple Emanu-El and Columbia College.

Those who practiced before him said Hendel was a brilliant jurist who could move cases along like nobody else they knew.

"If you were a young lawyer appearing before Judge Hendel, you'd better be prepared," said Judge Susan B. Handy, who first met him as a young attorney, then served with him on the Superior Court. "He was intimidating. He would have read every case that you were going to cite. He was an amazing scholar in that regard."

Handy said Hendel had a stoic demeanor, but could not have been more gracious and helpful when she was assigned to take over his role as presiding judge of civil matters in New London in 1997.

"He truly was a mentor to me during that time and we developed a really lovely friendship for which I will be forever thankful," she said.

In 2002, the New London County Bar Association presented Hendel with its annual Liberty Bell award for his creation of the Connecticut Court Visitation Program in which students visit courts to learn about civil and criminal procedures. In 2007, the association commissioned a portrait of Hendel, which still hangs in Courtroom One in the original section of the 1784 courthouse on Huntington Street.

"I knew Judge Hendel all of my life," said attorney Matthew G. Berger, who lived near the Hendels as a child. "The first time I set foot in the courthouse was for his swearing-in as a judge, and he was as important a part of the legal community as that historic building where his portrait now hangs. He was admired by all for his intellect, hard work and an innate sense that justice under the law was the most important goal for any judge to work for, something he never failed to do."   

North Stonington attorney Stephen M. Reck tried his first case before Hendel about 30 years ago, winning a $280,000 verdict for a man who got hit in the eyeball with a raquet ball at a YMCA. He said as a young lawyer, he could hardly keep up with Hendel, who had a great legal mind.

"He would speak so quickly with this complicated legal terminology, that half the time I had no idea what he was saying," Reck said by phone Tuesday.

Hendel "got cases tried like no other judge in the history of New London Superior Court," Reck said. "He said, 'OK, this isn't settling,' and you were out there doing your opening arguments. You didn't stop until closing arguments were done."

Hendel's lengthy legal career was not without its bumps.

In 1994, a man he had sentenced for murder sent a letter to Hendel demanding $1,000 and threatening to have a motorcycle gang kill him.

In 1988, he was brought before the Judicial Review Council on a misconduct charge after Steven Slosberg, a columnist for The Day, published inappropriate comments Hendel made about victims in juvenile sexual assault cases he'd handled. Hendel said he had been speaking to Slosberg on background to help him understand the cases, while Slosberg said Hendel had never said the conversation was off the record.

One of Hendel's longtime close friends, attorney Martin M. Rutchik, said members of the local bar association rallied in Hendel's support, writing letters and attending a public hearing. Rutchik had never practiced before Hendel, due to their friendship, but said he knew him to be a brilliant, caring and diligent judge.

"I was involved in getting as many people as possible to the hearing," Rutchik said. "Sometimes you don't get the opportunity to say something about someone until they get in trouble. The matter was disposed of (Hendel was exonerated) and Seymour went on to serve as a judge, but not without the pain of what had taken place. It's interesting to note that Steven Slosberg has suffered himself by that disclosure, or lack of confidentiality."

Slosberg, who retired from The Day in 2007, said by email, "I'm sorry to read of his passing and my condolences to his family."

Hendel's family is planning a small graveside service on Sunday at noon at the Beth-El Cemetery in Groton and said they would be sharing a Zoom link so friends and associates could attend virtually.

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that the service is on Sunday.

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