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Eulogy for
Lawrence H. Cooke


Leaving New York City early this morning, l thought of the many, many times I have traveled these familiar roads coming home to Monticello-coming home from college and law school, coming home to introduce Stephen, my husband, to my mother and father, coming home to celebrate the centennial of my high school, the retirement of our fabulous Chief Judge, the naming of the Lawrence H. Cooke Sullivan County Courthouse, and on and on. Invariably in coming home there has been a sense of excitement, anticipation, joy. Always my heart beat just a little faster as we approached Sullivan County, and Monticello, and Broadway, and encountered the wonderful people, lifetime friends, here in my hometown.

Today, of course, the emotions are very different as my lifetime friends gather to bid farewell to a lifetime hero, Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke, the Chief, or-as he was widely known-just plain "Larry." As we each privately struggle with our own sweet memories and sense of loss, what comes first to mind is to convey profound sympathies to the people who were nearest and dearest to him, to his children Edward, George and Lauren and their spouses, to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren-every one of them a source of pride for him-and of course to Alice, his "saintly wife" (those are his words, not mine, but I concur fully in the sentiment). Theirs was an incredible love story of more than 61 years. You just can't speak of Larry without immediately thinking of that beautiful, gentle lady who was his strength and his anchor.

These last few days since his passing, we have been challenged to sum up his greatest achievements, his lasting contributions, the legacy of the rich and productive life of Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke.

My own instincts took me immediately to the record books, the vital statistics-that's a lawyerly thing to do-beginning with his election as Town Supervisor, then a distinguished trial and appellate judge, ultimately Judge and Chief Judge of the state's highest court, Chief Judge of the entire New York State court system, head of the National Center for State Courts and nationwide Conference of Chief Justices. He served this state brilliantly to the very last minute permitted by law, then continued to contribute his prodigious talents as counselor, law professor and Judicial Screening Committee Chair. The vital statistics alone bespeak a life of public service, of rectitude and high integrity, a life dedicated to the law and the principle of justice for all.

Can anyone question that he lived out his father's advice to the letter: "If in doubt, take the high road?" Do the right thing.

You know, too, from a moment's glance at the record books, that this was a person of boundless energy and capacity. "Waste not, want not." Again, one of his life principles; and again, he was true to it. His legendary workday began at 4:00 a.m.-I am told. (I have to admit that I have this only on secondhand authority.)

He believed that change, improvement, betterment was possible-whether of the individual, or the court system or society at large-and he committed himself with every fiber of his being to actually making things better. As the chief executive officer of the court system, he instituted dozens of bold reforms, from greater openness and efficiency, to community dispute resolution centers, to upgraded facilities, to measures assuring equal opportunity. He was far ahead of his time in actively supporting and advancing women and minorities in the courts-and as a personal beneficiary of those efforts I am most grateful to him.

The books show us, too, that as a Judge Lawrence Cooke's commitment to fairness and justice was the core of his jurisprudence, whether constitutional rights, or protection of free speech, or protection against discrimination and arbitrary government action. As Chief Judge, he helped to place the Court of Appeals, as well as our court system generally, at the very apex of state judiciaries.

Truly an exemplary life. A life well lived.

But would any of us who lived and worked alongside Larry sum up his greatest achievements, his legacy, simply from the record books and vital statistics? I think not. Surely he would not have measured the significance of his life that way. To speak only from the cold records is to ignore his amazing warmth, his through-and-through genuineness, humility and sincerity, the marvelous down-to-earth quality of his personality. His commitment to individual justice was not abstract or bookish, and it was not confined to the courts. At the center of all the things he did, whether professional or personal, was the simple fact that he liked, and believed in, and cared about, people. People were important to him.

So many of us here have stories of his inexhaustible kindness and sensitivity, how he touched our lives in some uniquely meaningful way, with a birthday card, a holiday greeting, a telephone call, a note or postcard, an appointment to a committee, a chat at the local diner over a piece of pie, an evening with his cherished fellow volunteer firemen. He wasn't just born with the love of his community, he earned it every single day.

Joe Traficanti, years ago, told me one of my favorite stories typifying Larry. It was about Barney and Ethel, who operated the service station in Accord, where Larry often stopped for gas and ice cream on the trip between Albany and Monticello. Even as his license plate moved up from County Court to Supreme Court, to Court of Appeals Number One, to Barney and Ethel he was always known as "Larry." The Town Court Justice, by contrast, they called "Judge Lipton." I think Tony Kane hit it right on the nose when he said, "His mission was to treat everyone equally." However high he rose in public life, however powerful he became, however long the list of his accomplishments, Larry treated everyone, everyone, with kindness and respect. The fact is, he changed a lot of things, but some things never changed. His hat size never changed. His concern for people never changed, and he never deviated from his own fundamental values. Always he took the high road.

Having been born and raised in Monticello, I cannot remember a day in my own life when I did not know, and greatly admire, Larry, from the time he and Alice shopped in our store-they were adored by my parents-to the miraculous day I was appointed a Judge of the Court of Appeals and served on the Court with him-imagine, two citizens of Monticello on the Court at the same time-to our last visit not long ago. As the Court's Junior Judge, I had the privilege of not only watching and learning from a master but also regularly receiving news from home, like an illness in the Cooper family or a fire at Cohen's Hardware. I cannot begin to calculate, or acknowledge, the impact of this great man on my own life. I am confident that many others feel the same about his impact on their lives. And isn't that, in the end, the most significant contribution any of us can hope to make, the most lasting legacy of all?

I overstated a bit at the outset when I said that always before today I felt a sense of joy coming home. Truth to tell, my last trip home was to visit Larry at the hospital and, while we were happy to see one another, joy was not exactly the predominant emotion of the day. Oh, there were jokes and chuckles-Larry's twinkling wit, his great sense of humor, his concern for his visitor never left him. But it was clear that he was debilitated and in pain. Above all, he simply, desperately wanted to go home. Not long after, I learned that he had indeed gone home, that he had passed peacefully just as he wished, at home, in the bosom of his loving family.

I agree with George Cooke's words quoted in the newspaper the other day. "You think you prepare for things like this-surely we've anticipated this day for some time now-and still it is so hard." Hard for his wonderful family, and hard for all of us. Hard to stop thinking about the remarkable person who is no longer with us-the trademark hat, the one-of-a-kind smile, the humor, the energy, the caring, the courage. Hard to stop thinking about the lessons exemplified by his life, lessons that will forever be with us: to apply your talents to the fullest to help others; treat all people equally, with kindness, dignity and respect; walk the high road, however difficult that may at times be; stand up for what you believe is right and fair; above all, be true to yourself.

A life of love and family. Of kindness and goodness to other people. Of accomplishment and contribution to society. A life well lived. Truly, a life well lived.

[Judith S. Kaye is Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals.]

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