A Life: Joseph Francis Daschbach, 1937 — 2013; ‘He Treated Everyone With Dignity’
Joe Daschbach in an undated photo, ski racing at Mount Sunapee. (Family photograph)
Joe Daschbach, a New Hampshire district court judge and lawyer, and his future bride, Eileen, in a 1962 photo. The couple was married for 50 years. (Family photograh)
Lyme — After losing his bid to become Grafton County Attorney in the 1976 election, Hanover lawyer Joe Daschbach received a flattering offer by way of then-Gov. Meldrim Thomson. Would he like to be a district court judge?
Daschbach, a 1968 Georgetown University law school graduate, had in a relatively short time gained a reputation throughout New Hampshire for his measured, analytical approach to matters of the law. (“With Joe, it was not the volume of his voice or the sharpness of his tongue,” former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick said in a recent interview. “He had a sense of balance. He was a very civil, thoughtful person.”)
But why would Thomson, who was about as conservative of a Republican as they get (at least before the Tea Party came along), reach out to Daschbach, a faithful Democrat?
There was some speculation that Thomson, who was from Orford, was looking for a way to keep Daschbach on the sidelines. If he was appointed a judge, Daschbach couldn’t run for political office or campaign on behalf of statewide Democratic candidates.
Daschbach always dismissed the theory. He didn’t believe that anyone, particularly someone who wielded as much clout as Thomson, would consider him a political threat. Daschbach was about as humble as they come.
“The man didn’t have an ego,” said Eileen Daschbach, his wife of 50 years.
Daschbach, who spent 25 years presiding over the district courts in Hanover and Lebanon, died August 10 at his home in Lyme, following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 75.
Joseph Francis Daschbach grew up in south Pittsburgh, the product of a middle class German-Irish neighborhood. His dad, a metallurgist, was a supervisor at one of the city’s famed steel mills. Joe was 12 when his father died of a heart attack.
With her husband’s sudden death, Mary Daschbach went to work as a secretary to support her son and his three younger sisters. To earn extra money, she brought home legal documents to type at night.
Her only son was a stellar student and top-notch debater at St. Wendelin High School. But when it came time to look at colleges, his family’s finances dictated that his search be limited to Pittsburgh so he could live at home.
But Sister Rosalie, of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity in Pittsburgh, had watched Daschbach excel as a debater. She arranged for him to receive a partial scholarship to the University of Notre Dame.
For a former altar boy who had grown up attending parochial schools, it didn’t get any better. When Daschbach broke the news to his mother, she had just one question: “How are we going to pay for this?”
The summer before heading off to Notre Dame, Daschbach worked 12-hour shifts as a laborer in a steel mill.
“It was a hot, sweaty job,” recalled his sister Barb Noble, who now lives in Florida. “He was plenty tired when he came home at night.”
But Daschbach still needed help paying his first year of college bills.
“My mother scraped together what money she could to get him there,” said Noble.
When Thanksgiving rolled around, Daschbach hitchhiked the 375 miles home to Pittsburgh. He told his family about students he had met at Notre Dame who were getting their college educations paid for through Navy ROTC. “Where do I sign up?” he asked them.
Along with covering his last three years at Notre Dame, Daschbach’s ROTC scholarship allowed him to spend a post-graduate year at Columbia University, where he took French six days a week.
“My dad never wanted to stop studying,” said John Daschbach, the youngest of the family’s three children.
After Columbia, the Navy dispatched Daschbach to Newport, R.I, where he met Eileen O’Reilly on a blind date. At 18, she was nearly five years younger than Daschbach, but her family didn’t have a problem with her dating an older Naval officer.
“My father went to Notre Dame; my brother went to Notre Dame,” she explained. “He had instant credibility.”
Daschbach shipped out for a year at sea, but the couple resumed dating when he returned to Newport and she was attending college in Boston to become a teacher. After they were married in 1963, Daschbach, who rose to the rank of lieutenant, remained in the Navy for an additional year to save up money for law school.
With Daschbach enrolled at Georgetown, it wasn’t long before the couple was sharing their small apartment outside of Washington, D.C. with their two daughters, Mary and Ellen. In the morning, Daschbach studied while riding the bus seven miles to his job at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. After work, he walked “really fast” to make his first class of the evening at Georgetown’s law school, said Eileen Daschbach.
After getting home from classes, he hit the books, particularly if he had a paper to write.
“He didn’t sleep much,” said his wife, who would wake up in the middle of the night to type his papers. “Somehow it would all be finished by the time morning came.”
Daschbach also continued to serve in the Navy Reserves, where he became friends with a 1965 Georgetown law school graduate named John Durkin, who was working in New Hampshire as an assistant attorney general. Daschbach mentioned to Durkin that he and his wife had decided that they didn’t want to raise their children in a large city. Durkin sent Daschbach a list of New Hampshire law firms.
Daschbach started making calls. In the spring of 1968, a Manchester firm offered him a job. Daschbach didn’t even stick around for his Georgetown commencement ceremony. He and his wife loaded up the car with their kids, of which there were now three, and headed for New Hampshire.
After a few years in Manchester, Daschbach moved to Charlie Tesreau’s law firm in Hanover, where Daschbach and his kids became avid skiers and fishermen.
Daschbach remained in contact with Durkin, who after five years as the state insurance commissioner jumped into statewide politics in the early 1970s. Daschbach worked on Durkin’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.
In 1976, Daschbach gave politics a try himself, losing a close race for the county’s top prosecutor position to Republican John Rolli.
Then came the offer from the governor’s office.
When acquaintances saw Daschbach on the street, they’d often start out the conversation with, “Hello, Judge.”
“Just call me Joe,” he’d respond. “I’m not in court.”
In his down-to-earth style, Daschbach minimized his appointment. He reminded friends that serving as judge in Hanover, which had its own district court back then, was only a part-time position. And even after the state closed the court in Hanover and he took over as judge in Lebanon, Daschbach continued to practice law.
Like many small-town lawyers, Daschbach took on clients who didn’t always have the ability to pay. At least not in a currency that could be cashed at a bank. One evening, Daschbach arrived home, toting fresh beets that an elderly client had given him in lieu of payment. He considered it a fair trade, said his wife. “He loved borscht.”
Some of his tastes were a bit surprising.
As a judge and lawyer, Daschbach was known for being soft-spoken and reserved. Then there was his private side.
“He was a huge fan of the Talking Heads,” said his son, John.
“Pyscho Killer,” “Burning Down the House,” and the lyrics, “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.” were Daschbach favorites. “I don’t know many kids who can say their dad turned them on to the Talking Heads,” said John.
And how did he discover the rock bank? Saturday Night Live , naturally . Daschbach was a frequent viewer, staying up with his teenage kids for the 11:30 p.m. weekend show.
“He also taught us to play poker,” added his daughter Ellen.
“For someone who was supposedly so reserved and old-fashioned, you wouldn’t always know it,” said Eileen.
Daschbach enjoyed the comedy of Steve Martin as much as the works of French philosopher and historian Rene Girard. Although he was a devout Catholic, a church not known for its progressive views toward women, he was an early supporter of allowing women to join local Rotary clubs. When change didn’t occur as quickly as he thought it should, he quietly left the club in Lebanon.
Some people in the legal profession referred to him as Saint Joe. After reading about judges in another state who had come under scrutiny for their poker playing, Daschbach dropped out of his regular penny ante game with friends, said his wife.
“He had incredibly high standards, but a heart of gold,” said Darrell Hotchkiss, a law partner for 10 years.
Tom Csatari, another longtime partner, said when ethical questions came up involving clients, “Joe always had wisdom to share with you.”
Norwich lawyer Wayne Young, who was a partner with Daschbach and Csatari in the mid-2000s, said, “There are a lot of good lawyers out there, but the thing about Joe was that he made you feel good about being a lawyer. It was his style; his mannerisms. He treated everyone with dignity.”
When he was serving in his role as district court judge, he made sure others who stood before him did as well. A young prosecutor once made the mistake of referring to the defendant as a notoriously bad actor. Daschbach informed the lawyer that his editorial comment was inappropriate. He believed criminal defendants deserved the court’s respect and he made sure they got it.
“He believed that people were fundamentally good. Some just make mistakes,” said his daughter Ellen. “He viewed the law as a way to keep our society civil.”
Broderick, who is now dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law, served on the Supreme Court for several cases in which Daschbach was one of the lawyers. “The really great lawyers are good listeners,” said Broderick. “It’s a lost art. But that was one of (Daschbach’s) strengths. He didn’t over argue or overstate his case. He never had a sharp edge.”
That doesn’t mean he lacked passion, though. For the law, or Notre Dame football. On Monday mornings in the fall, Csatari, who played at Dartmouth in the ’70s, could count on hearing an assessment of Notre Dame’s most recent performance
“He was this intellectual who knew classical music, plays and literature,” recalled Csatari, “But I think one of the things he enjoyed the most was talking football.”
Although courtrooms are generally open to the public (except for juvenile proceedings), Daschbach didn’t want criminal defendants to get the impression that they were part of a show.
So he had a rule: No family allowed.
His family, that is.
“When people found themselves on the wrong side of the law, he knew it could be very embarrassing for them,” said Eileen. “He didn’t want to make them any more uncomfortable than they already were.”
When his kids were in high school, however, they finally had an opportunity to see their dad in his black robe — thanks to the driver education instructor. To give his students an idea of the consequences they might face if caught breaking traffic laws, the instructor brought each class to watch Daschbach’s court in session.
“We just had to pretend we didn’t know him,” said John.
Over the years, Eileen joked with her husband that maybe the way to see him in action as a judge would be to get a speeding ticket herself. On his final day on the bench, Daschbach finally relented. Eileen could watch her husband at work. She made sure to sit in the back.
After all, a courtroom ain’t no disco.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.