Fair, Patient, And Kind
Late City Court Judge Remembered By Colleagues, Friends
During the middle of the 20th century, the epicenter of intellectual conversation in the city of Jamestown did not take place at the local library, law office or municipal building; rather, it took place daily during lunch hour around the roundtable of a city establishment of the past known as the Town Club at 210 Pine St. — now home to Gialy’s Italian Steakhouse.
The daily cast featured a cross-section of doctors, stockbrokers, accountants, lawyers and other men of the community and eventually included a young Samuel C. Alessi Jr., whose father of the same name had blazed trails as one of the first prominent Italian American lawyers in a predominantly Swedish city.
“I learned more about economics and more things at that table than I did in college,” Alessi told Robert H. Jackson Center founder Greg Peterson in 2014. “It was great.”
As years passed, the roundtable at the Town Club turned into a breakfast table at Friendly’s and eventually the Hilton Doubletree as younger members, notably former Mayor Sam Teresi and the Hon. Frederick Larson, City Court Judge, became participants, engaging in conversation surrounding the news of the day, shifting to a socially distanced dialogue on the porch of Alessi’s Rowley Court home in recent days due to restrictions put in place by the outbreak of COVID-19.
“It’s more a family getting together talking about each other’s lives and just a group of friends getting together,” Teresi said.
But this weekend, the group will be without one of its most vocal members: Alessi, who spent two decades in service to his fellow citizens as the city’s city court judge before retiring in 1993, passed away Sunday at the age of 88.
“I think I can speak for my other comrades we were devastated,” Teresi said. “We knew that Sam had been ill and struggling, but we had always thought and hoped that there would be more Saturday mornings ahead of us than the last one the week before.”
Alessi, a Democrat, was first elected to the bench in 1973 in the waning days of the city’s chief judicial presence being a part-time position. Prior to that, he served a term each on the Chautauqua County Board of Supervisors, which eventually transitioned into the County Legislature, while practicing law with his father and brother, Robert, in the firm of Alessi and Alessi from 1959 to 1973.
“My dad used to have a saying, ‘It’s better to be a good man than a great anything else,'” Teresi told The Post-Journal Thursday. “I would characterize that Sam was a great outstanding public servant, but more importantly, he was just a good man in every respect of the term.”
“I knew Sam as a gentle, kind, and caring person,” added Dr. Lillian Ney, retired cardiologist and former president of the Jamestown City Council, noting that their families were close friends. “He also was a strong advocate for what he believed in, and firm in his convictions.”
City Council President Tony Dolce, R, Ward 2, praised Alessi as a citizen ever involved in his community.
“He was a neighbor here on the north side for many years,” Dolce said. “He was just a great guy, somebody that I looked up to and respected as a judge. He had an integral role in the history of this community.”
“He, as an attorney and as a judge, tried to be patient, he tried to be kind and he tried to carefully measure his words,” said Larson, who has served on the city’s bench alongside Alessi’s successor, the Hon. John LaMancuso, since 2014. “Even if a defendant in city court was not a person with very good behavior, Judge Alessi tried to be fair and diplomatic.
“I’ve tried, in my six years as judge, to emulate that as much as possible,” he added. “Every defendant in front of me is sir or madam, regardless of what they’ve been charged with or how many times they’ve been in court. Sam believed in being fair and patient and tried to be kind to be people.”
Alessi graduated from Jamestown High School in 1950 and went on to complete his undergraduate studies at Cornell University in 1954, where he was a classmate of Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a fact he was always proud to share, his friends say.
“It wasn’t that they were just there at the same time generally — they were classmates,” Larson said. “Sam was very proud of her and what that represented at Cornell.”
He returned to the area after receiving his Juris Doctorate from the Albany School of Law, where he joined the political scene, serving as an appointed member and eventually chair of the Jamestown Municipal Airport Commission.
“He was very determined to do what he could to keep the airports viable and keep our now returned commercial air service for the Jamestown Municipal Airport,” Larson said, while also noting his service as chairman of the Jamestown Community College board of trustees from 1979 to 1988.
“He viewed the college as a tremendous economic asset to the whole community and he enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and staying in touch with the JCC presidents over the years and the speakers that would come in from JCC,” he added.
“That meant a great deal to him,” Ney, a former chair and current member of the college’s board of trustees, said of Alessi’s reverence toward JCC. “Even later, he continued to hold the college in high regard.”
While serving on the city court, Alessi made a bid in 1978 to succeed John H. Hallenbeck as the county’s Family Court Judge, losing narrowly to Lakewood attorney Lynn Hartley in an attempt to become the first Democrat to serve in a countywide judicial office– something for which Alessi was later grateful.
“Judge Alessi was a thoughtful, sentimental kind of man and the kinds of cases day-after-day in Family Court made him realize that he was better suited for the City Court anyway,” Larson said of that loss. “In his mind, it all worked out.”
Larson believed that that temperament led to his decision to retire nine years before he was required to do so.
“Sam was such a caring person that the burden of sitting in judgment of people and their behavior was hard on him,” he said. “I think that’s why he decided at age 61 it was OK for him to retire from the bench. Everything I knew about him throughout the decades was that he was a good and decent man that tried to do his best in whatever he did.”
Teresi, who encountered Alessi mostly during his pre-mayoral tenure as the city’s director of development, said that even judgments against his department by the longtime jurist were always understood.
“I never found fault with anything that he did even though we may not have agreed with the final outcome,” he said. “He never left any room for us to find fault because he was nothing but fair, impartial and respectful and compassionate for all parties that stood before his bench.”
In his retirement, Alessi served as a scuba instructor at the YMCA and played his trombone in the pit orchestra at the Lucille Ball Little Theater of Jamestown, areas where Dolce and Ney each interacted with him.
“He was athletic, he was musical and obviously very intelligent,” Dolce said. “He loved this community and he really was a renaissance man.”
“He was such a faithful member of the music community and it obviously was a great love of his,” Ney said. “He led such a very good life, and always kept his hometown of Jamestown front and center.”
And though Alessi’s presence will be missed at his weekly coffee gathering, Teresi has one memory that will stay with him forever.
“Sam and I alone at the table once and, I asked him, ‘Judge, what’s the most important quality and attribute in being a good judge?'” he remembered, thinking that Alessi would choose one of the three symbols of ‘Lady Justice:’ blind impartiality, the balance beam or the sword held and dispensed swiftly toward judgment.
His choice? Humility.
“I said, ‘Humility?'” Teresi recalled. “He responded, ‘As a judge, you’ve been entrusted with the authority to sit in judgment over another equal human being. That should be an awfully humbling notion to you.'”
Added Teresi, “I’ll always remember that.”