Reuben L. Lurie (April 6, 1898-January 24, 1985)

photograph of Reuben Lurie

Recollections of Dad (by Jonathan Lurie [b. 1939])

    As I seek to reminisce about Dad, let me confess that I am no longer a young man.  Yet, as I have aged, my memories of him have not.  The following paragraphs draw on excerpts contained in letters, tributes, and other materials which I collected to present some sort of tribute to a gathering celebrating his memory--held on March 22, 1985.  In later weeks and months, however, I found myself unable to draw my memories of Dad into a coherent, written entity.  Months stretched into years, and the years became decades.  Now, more than 25 years after his death, I try again.

    Dad, as one speaker noted at a dinner in his honor in 1975, “was born in Boston at a very early age.”  Indeed!  He graduated from Dorchester High School in 1915, and apparently was one of the editors of the school literary magazine.  (Also on the mast head was “Diogenes, 300BC.”)   His stories and poems in this magazine are probably best forgotten.  But even as a high school student, he gained a lasting love of books.  In later life, a friend noted that after Dad had won a case “his idea of a victory debauch was a trip to Goodspeed’s [one of the most famous book stores in Boston].”  He graduated from Harvard in 1919, and after a few years of desultory work in real estate, attended Harvard Law School, from which he received his law degree in 1926.

    Because for the greater part of his adult life, Dad was inseparable from the Ford Hall Forum, something should be said about his relationship to the organization, one which lasted for more than half a century.  Indeed, the Forum continues to this day, still hosting noteworthy as well as notable speakers, and still insisting that they answer questions from the audience.  According to an article about him published in 1966, “as a short cocky student at Harvard,” Dad “decided to expose the forum for what he imagined it was, a refuge for nuts and crackpots.”   Expose it, he never did, but instead he became addicted to what the Forum stood for.   By the mid 1920s, he was--to quote the Forum’s President George Coleman--“one of our most devoted volunteer workers.”  In 1924, while at Harvard Law School, he began to edit the Ford Hall Forum Bulletin.

    Some old surviving issues give evidence of his emerging wit. “Punctuation marks, omitted in this issue will be found in the next.”  A lot of Dad’s delightful quips concerned the question and answer period at the Forum lectures.  In the November 1925 issue, for example:

A forumer stood on his feet
And propounded his question with heat.
His excitement was great, but sad to relate,
He was asking it out on the street.

Here is Dad’s tongue in cheek description of a hypothetical member of the Forum audience, seeking to ask a question: "As if drawn by a magnet, he rose to his reluctant feet….He stood there, inarticulate and helpless.  His eyes became bloodshot, his knees shook, and perspiration oozed out on his forehead.  The floor rocked beneath him, and…he whispered his demand for the truth!  And Mr. Coleman leaned over the Platform, hand to his ear, and said regretfully, 'Sorry, try again.  I didn’t get the question.'”  

    Dad even wrote a book about the Ford Hall Forum, published in 1930. The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library accurately described it as “a spirited history of Ford Hall…written with wit and humor, and with an enthusiasm which becomes contagious.  On every page one feels that the book was a labor of love,” and indeed it was.  Yet, as time passed, Dad had very little to say about his only book, a copy of which I still possess. Perhaps it was because by the time my sister and I were old enough to know what Ford Hall meant, it had reached maturity as an institution, and Dad had long since attained the skill and great reputation as its chair that went far beyond the exuberant prose in his book.  Nevertheless, it remains an enduring contribution to his memory.

    Dad’s reputation as the skillful moderator of the Ford Hall Forum meetings was so great that sometimes it seemed to overshadow his larger role in the law.   While presiding, he maintained order with an effective synthesis of courtesy and wit.  When, for example, after he had gently but repeatedly reminded a questioner to come to the point of his question, the somewhat flustered individual indignantly asked “Isn’t this an open forum?”  “To be sure,” replied Dad, “But it isn’t open all night.”   When a would- be-heckler tried to interrupt Martin Luther King speaking at the Forum in 1967, the result was captured in an enthusiastic fan letter. “I have just come home from our evening with Martin Luther King and…let me praise you particularly for your gentle authoritative and highly successful squelching of the barbarians who were rude enough to hiss…You should have gone into teaching.  Don’t tell me—I know whatever you do is teaching.”

    In 1972, Ramsey Clark, the son of Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, and later to be named Attorney General by President Jimmy Carter, spoke at the Forum. The first person to ask a question unleashed what columnist Roger Alan Jones described as “a John Birch-ish tirade that borders on calling Clark a traitor.  As is usually the case with such tirades, the tirader doesn’t know when to switch off.  But he never gets a chance to run out of breath; a couple of stern ‘Sir, Sit down!’s from Lurie…and then another Lurie rap that ends in ‘Sir, if you can’t be still, then come back again so you will learn how we do things here.’  That old Fair Play again.  Only Lurie makes it work…and this time he uses it to defuse the fanatical bomb just like a crack demolitions expert.  You should come just to watch Judge Lurie perform…listening to the question from the audience, and repeating it into the microphone so that everybody—including the speaker—can hear it as well.  Only he does a better job of asking than the questioner.  His rephrasings cut right through to the naked essence of the question, and he does it so quickly that you wonder where his mind is, taking time out to formulate all that so clearly.”

    Once in a while, even Dad experienced a misstep.  Duke Professor J. B. Rhine, the scholar of parapsychology and ESP, spoke on the topic of ESP at the Forum.  During the question period, “there was an insistent hand raised by someone with a mess of blonde hair wearing a bright red sweater.”  Dad in acknowledging “the frantic  hand, said, pointing to the blonde in red, ‘That young lady on this side.’  The person rose and said ‘I’m a man.’"  Whereupon Dad responded with a very prompt apology: "I’m sorry.  I guess my extra-sensory perception isn’t working this evening.”

    A final comment about Dad and the Forum appears at the conclusion of this essay, but we should not forget that while his service to it was one of the highlights of his life, there were others.  One such experience was his appointment by then Governor, later Senator, Leverett Saltonstall as Chairman of the Massachusetts Parole Board in 1940.  Indeed, he was called to the statehouse at 11; 30, sworn in at 12:30, and presided over his first meeting as chairman at 2:30—all on the same day.  His appointment came even as he was investigating a trail of graft and corruption in the Suffolk County Clerk’s office.  He had stumbled upon this trail a few months earlier, when he visited the office to submit some documents for one of his law cases, and found a female employee sitting at her desk, quietly sobbing.  Dad, being Dad, asked her what the problem was, and in due time she revealed that she as well as the other staff members were compelled to pay into a sort of slush fund maintained by the Clerk himself.  If they didn’t they would lose their jobs, and she had to retain her post, but could not afford the paybacks.  Intrigued, Dad started digging.

    He was later named  counsel for an investigatory committee of the Boston Bar Association, and when the whole sordid episode had been brought to light, both the County Clerk and his associate in graft resigned, and--as I recall--went to jail.  Dad received a civic award medal, the first ever presented by the Boston City Club.  The citation read in part that the resignations of Dow and Connally  “followed investigations persistently and devotedly pursued by a private citizen moved by no official… duty, but only by his compassion for the victims of official oppression, and by a high sense of community obligation.”  Dowd and Connally were charged with “malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance,” to which Dad responded, “There’s quite a Byronic ring to that list, isn’t there?”

    In 1946, Dad received a tribute from an unusual source, a magazine put out by Massachusetts prisoners, called the Mentor. “Looking back on several different parole Boards, it can definitely be stated that no single member ever inspired the confidence of the prisoners that Reuben L. Lurie enjoyed.  He was not ‘soft,’ and there were the usual disappointments.  However, his humane interpretation of his powers were such that even those rejected unhesitatingly acknowledge his fairness.”  In fact, “the Commonwealth needs men of his type more than the public needs a good lawyer…[and] one day his spirit of progress will be translated into actuality.”  Like virtually all of the letters, comments, clippings, and columns on which this remembrance is based, I don’t recall that Dad ever mentioned their existence.  Rather, he placed them in a desk drawer where, he knew that in good time I would come across them, as indeed I did.

    In 1953, Governor Christian Herter appointed Dad as the Massachusetts Commissioner of Correction.  It would be difficult, editorialized the Boston Globe, "to imagine an appointment better calculated to inspire public confidence than [this one].”  A good family friend wrote:  “You named Commissioner!  I throw in the towel! I’m going straight!  You stay in….I’ll stay out.”  Although, as will be seen, his tenure was limited, as Commissioner Dad spent a great deal of time talking with prisoners, always alone and unarmed, meeting with whoever requested to see him.   Only a few months into his term, he had met with more than 300 prisoners.  At the height of tension in the Massachusetts State Prison, recalled the Boston Herald, “Lurie strolled alone through the big yard. Nothing happened: he knew nothing would….For Lurie…is a courageous, crusading man.”  Did he enjoy his job? “I don’t enjoy it.  I see too much misery to be able to enjoy it.”

    And when barely a year later, in 1954, he took his seat as a Judge of the Superior Court, he brought to the bench first-hand knowledge of the prison system, and how it might affect men and women sent through it.  Dad frequently would comment that “more judges ought to go to jail.”  Of course, he did not refer only to the corrupt, political hack.  Rather he meant well-meaning jurists with no first-hand experience of conditions in the system to which they would confine people who had been convicted and sentenced in their court rooms.  Dad’s innate compassion was tempered by an unequalled knowledge of the Massachusetts penal system (parole, corrections, and the court.)

    His appointment to the Court on which he served for almost two decades came in 1954.  It was greeted with acclamation as well as tributes to his “great ability, deep integrity and a high sense of justice.”  Perhaps his friend Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard law School put it best:  “The public should be congratulated, rather than you.”  A rabbi wrote that the Jewish tradition “conceives of a judge as a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He.  It is most fortunate for society when the Holy One has such partners as yourself.”

    Dad’s tenure as a judge well reflected a concern dominant  throughout his adult career—be it as a lawyer, Chairman of the Parole Board, Chairman of the Brookline Board of Selectmen, Commissioner of Correction, and Judge of the Superior Court. Perhaps because he was so familiar with its use, and indeed exercised it himself, Dad feared the abuse of power, especially from those in a position to apply it officially.  Like the famous British historian Lord  Acton, he believed that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”   In 1959, for example, he was assigned to a criminal court session in Cambridge.  I was still an undergrad at Harvard, and went down to the Court House to watch him in action.  A steel mesh cage in which prisoners were confined was in place in front of the Bench.  Dad asked why it was there, and was informed that the Sheriff had so ordered.  Gently, Dad indicated that he would not hold court until it had been removed, which it was—quite promptly. Dad referred to it as “a monstrous relic of the dark ages.  My feelings on the subject," he said, “are apparent.” The Boston Herald applauded Dad’s action, noting that courts are not merely “for the convenience of law enforcement  officers.  They are for the protection of the public, including persons accused of crime.”

    Only one year later, attorneys for the Boston Police Commissioner sought a ruling from Dad to compel the state auditor to approve payment for certain charges on contracts incurred by the Commissioner’s office.  It turned out that, contrary to law, he had not used competitive bidding in awarding the contracts, but had given them to his political cronies.   Dad not only rejected the Commissioner’s request, but referred the entire matter to the Attorney General’s Office.  He noted “it is expected that our police will clearly align themselves on the side of law and order.  It would be the height of irony not to hold a police commissioner to a similar standard.”  Again, the Herald applauded even as it asked “must Massachusetts depend, for the initiation of searching investigations into allegation or intimations of misconduct in public office, upon the rigid sense of propriety of an occasional Reuben Lurie….?”  Of course, lower court judges were not exempt from Dad’s occasional scrutiny, and in one such case, he denounced the conduct of a District Court Judge for a ruling which “was infected with prejudicial constitutional error.”

    Two additional aspects of Dad’s service as a judge must be noted.  Although he never mentioned them to me, I found two separate folders among the papers in his desk.  One contained letters from what appears to be parents of young defendants on trial before him.  In 1964, a parent wrote of “the new lease on life you have given [name unimportant],  and our entire family.  With God’s help, I hope that at the end of the year’s time he will have proven himself worthy of your concern.  I was in Court on Friday but was so completely dissolved in tears of gratitude, for your kind, humble handling of the power vested in you, I couldn’t step forward.”  In 1971, “you gave my son a chance to find himself and straighten out his life…and I will always remember you in my prayers.”   Later in that year, “I sincerely thank God for placing you as our judge,  Your wisdom and compassionate understanding was simply overwhelming.  Judge Lurie, you are the essence of the grace of God.”  (A hand written notation indicates that Dad answered the letter almost immediately, but I could find no copy of what he wrote.)

    On a different note, some items he preserved dealt first with letters received from jury members who sat on some of his cases, and/or who later wrote about their experience.  Second were some transcripts of his instructions to his jurors.  Although I observed him on the bench many a time, I never heard him instruct a jury pool as he introduced them to their responsibilities.  His written comments, however, reflected learning, laced with humility, always leavened by wit.   Milton Bass, writing in the Berkshire Eagle, described his experience as a 1958 member of a jury pool when Dad held court in Pittsfield.  “The most impressive part of the whole court session, aside from the ponderous and wonderfully inevitable due process of law, was to watch the actions of the judge as he hovered over the entire scene.  The brilliance, knowledge, sensitivity, humor, humaneness, warmth, integrity and sincerity of this man were beacons which illuminate your understanding of the democratic way of life.  The republic and commonwealth are unshakable as long as men like this are part of our judicial system.”

    Three years earlier, in explaining their responsibilities to new jurors, Dad noted that some of them might be challenged with or without reason by lawyers involved in the particular case.  “There is nothing personal about a challenge, and you are not to regard yourself as having been insulted because you have been challenged….Dismiss from your mind any resentment….[and] if it affords you any comfort, assume that when you are challenged it is because you look too intelligent.  And if that is calculated to bring you too much inflation of the ego, assume you do not look intelligent enough.”

    But Dad recognized the jury as the lynch pin of the trial process.  “You are to be,” he would tell them, “non-conductors of heat.  This is difficult, very difficult, but you...must rise to the challenge…”  Unlike the citizens to whom he spoke, “I envy your service as jurors.  I have never sat on a jury; I shall never sit on a jury, and yet…I am sure there will come  the realization that you have made a real contribution…which will bring strength to the belief that the minds of men are free, and that justice can be given to people without fear, without favor, honestly and uprightly.”

    This recollection about Dad would be incomplete without some mention of his wife Ethel, my mom.  Apparently Dad had loved her since their teen age years, and as he sadly noted during the memorial gathering after her sudden death in 1975, “there was never a time, it seemed, when I did not know her.”  Of course, until his own death ten years later, I would say the same thing about him.  Dad wooed her in high school, college and even after law school.  Every note, it seems, and every letter received from him, she saved--especially his poems, which became famous within our family   They reveal his ongoing love for her, constant for more than half a century.

    In 1958, for example, they set out on a wintry Saturday evening to Symphony Hall, for their regular Boston Symphony Orchestra concert. (Never mind that while Dad was totally tone deaf, mom was not only a trained musician, but also an outstanding piano teacher, and she loved music. That was enough for him.)  She tripped and fell on the icy walk in front of their house.  Trying to assist her, Dad also fell.  They never made it to Symphony Hall that night, but it inspired a Valentine’s Day poem--a “tender ballad in honor of a bumped rump.”    Probably the last letter he ever wrote to her just ten days before she died, and almost 50 years since they had married, noted that “my love for you…continues to do the impossible--it grows from day to day.”

    And so it was until that terrible afternoon in March, 1975, when she died of a massive heart attack, in New Jersey where Mom and Dad had planned to spend the seder with us.  As should be obvious from the above, Dad was a one woman man, and when she passed away, much more of him died we realized at the time. In later years, our housekeeper Mary would talk with him about mom.  Once she asked him if he had ever compared her to other women.  “No, my dear,” he responded.  “She was beyond compare.”

    Like many men of his generation, Dad expected that he would die first, and had planned his affairs accordingly.  But fate decreed otherwise, and forced him to cope with not one but three tragic events, almost simultaneously.  He faced mandatory retirement from the bench due to a new state Constitutional amendment; his wife was taken from him; and he witnessed the end of his daughter’s marriage, even as she was ensnared by multiple sclerosis.  One need not dwell at any great length on the decade left to him after these blows.  For a while he tried to cope.   Half-heartedly he agreed to do some legal work, but with minimal success.  The many old friends of Mom and Dad sought to welcome him.  And we tried--how we tried--to get him to come to us, to be with us,  and yes--even stay with us.

    But he refused.  Always a very private man except and only except to the woman he adored, he kept his silence.  And when his brother Moe passed away in 1979, he began to withdraw even more markedly. The last few years of his life need not be discussed.  But even in his physical and mental decline, he never totally lost that pixyish touch which was his immortal trade mark.  Just a few weeks before he slipped away, he was being very difficult with the nurse in the hospital--at a time when we as well as Mary were visiting.  Turning to the nurse, Mary whispered that “He really is such a wonderful man,” and from the bed we heard:  “Say it louder, Mary.”

    I don’t know if Dad was given to introspection.  But if so, he could have reflected “on a life in which he had achieved success, lived well, laughed often and loved deeply, gained the respect of intelligent men and women,  filled his niche and accomplished his task, and left the world  better than he found it, even as he looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.”   He never lost faith in the unbounded potential of people to better themselves.  And so I return once more to Dad and the Ford Hall Forum.  Why was it so important to him?

    Because it educated its listeners about the ways of power, and gave them a chance to participate in one aspect of self government.  Issues openly discussed and debated served, he believed, as a counterpoise to power.   He saw the Forum as a means of educating citizens to their civic responsibilities.  At the height of his career, he  sensed real need for such education.  “We have fallen victim,” he wrote, “to the insidious plague of a creeping civic inertia.  We have become blind.  We no longer have the vision to see the dream of the founding fathers.  We have become deaf; we no longer hear the voices of great people of the past, to whose memories we pay lip service and utter meaningless sounds….We have lost our sense of taste; we no longer distinguish between assets and liabilities of would be candidates.  We respond to the eloquence which is bombast, to promises which are fake….We have even lost our sense of smell.  The malady of corruption, of venality, of the quid-pro-quo favor no longer rouses us to the action of indignation and effective protest.”  He wrote these lines long ago in his time, but they describe today, and they might well predict tomorrow.

    In his papers, I found--copied out in his own hand--an “excerpt from the writings of a philosopher of the Confucian School--2500 years ago.”  The symmetry of the lines well reflect the structure of Dad’s life:  “The ancients wishing to exemplify virtue throughout the world, first governed well their states.  Wishing to govern well their states, they first regulated their families.  Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.  Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.  Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.  Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.  Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

    When things are investigated, our knowledge will be extended to the utmost.  When our knowledge is extended to the utmost, our thoughts will be sincere.  When our thoughts are sincere, our hearts will be rectified.  When our hearts are rectified, our persons will be well cultivated. When our persons are well cultivated, our families will be well regulated.  When our families are well regulated, our states will be well governed, and when the states are well governed, the whole world will be at peace.”
Jonathan Lurie,  October 18, 2011


page created 11 Nov. 2011