IT IS DEVASTATING to lose someone at Thanksgiving, the season of feasts and family. How can we focus on the rich blessings of our lives when someone so fundamental is taken away so abruptly?
Regardless of how we try to immerse ourselves in the memories of joyful times, the brutal reality of absence hangs over us, impeding forward motion. We want to return to that time before the loss and, like Emily in "Our Town," relive the moments of happiness with greater appreciation than we did before loss cast its transformative shadow over everything.
Sometimes, though, the person who has left us was so large and full of life that it was impossible not to fully appreciate him while he walked among us. I use that term "walked among us" deliberately here, because I am talking about a man who spent a good part of his later days walking around his beloved South Philly neighborhood, the place where he was born and where, tragically, he died.
Judge Anthony DeFino was a product of his town and of his time. I didn't know him well, but I know some of his eight children, and the way they conduct their lives and connect with each other is a tribute to a person many would call a throwback to gentler, better days.
This is neither a biography nor an obituary for the man who lost his life in a house fire Sunday night. The latter has already been written, quite eloquently, and the former is a giant task that can't be constrained by the limits of an 800 word op-ed. This is simply a random remembrance of an exceptional life, viewed by an appreciative but distant observer.
Judge DeFino was on the Common Pleas Court for almost two decades. He presided over some trials that gained national prominence, and some that had significance only for the people who came into his courtroom. He'd been a lawyer for many years before joining the bench, and was a proud alumnus of Temple Law.
My own father, and many other great lawyers, learned their craft at what some called the "Temple on North Broad." The school had a tendency to turn out smart practitioners who had an additional gift: The ability to measure the reality of the common man. By that I mean they weren't products of ivory towers. Many came from ethnic enclaves like South and West Philly, and understood the street perhaps better than the boardroom. It's something that made them, and all that class of men of a certain vintage, perfect for a city of peasants and patricians.
Judge DeFino had his foot in both worlds. He was a son of Italy who ended up sitting on a court that had once counted Mayflower bloodlines in its roster. He was also someone who knew what it meant to be judged, as all of those Italians from that prewar generation understood the difference between acceptance and tolerance. My father felt it because he was an Irish Catholic from West Philadelphia; the Ukrainians and Poles felt it in Logan; the Jews in the Northeast experienced that same thing in their corner of Philadelphia. And it is certain that the judge felt it deep in the Italian enclaves to the south. That only gave him a greater appreciation for the rich heritage of his city and the people who filled its streets, homes and, sadly, its jails.
Many of those who worked at City Hall or the Criminal Justice Center knew Judge DeFino for his wicked sense of humor and kind ways. That was typical of his generation, the ability to take an extra moment to acknowledge the person crossing your path instead of gazing with inflated self-importance at an electronic device. For the judge, disembodied messages could wait. Real flesh and blood people with smiles and questions took precedence over the inanimate, and got respect.
I met him once on what used to be called a "constitutional," fitting for a man of his profession who enjoyed a pun. He would often take walks around his Girard Estates neighborhood, a gem of a spot that rivals any suburban borough for the beauty of its homes and greenery. He was a gentleman, and a gentle man, and gave me a smile and a courtly nod. He didn't know me, but he didn't have to. He treated strangers as friends.
We are all diminished when someone of this generation dies. Lawyers, in particular, feel the loss most profoundly. They are the living monuments to what the profession used to be, before we started paying attention to the outsized egos in the media and the courtrooms. Judge DeFino was a humble man with humble roots.
And in the end, and always, a giant.