Editorial: Justice David Humphrey: touchdown of a life


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There are two ways to hold court.
Superior Court justice David Humphrey was a master at both.
During the 1990s and early 2000s I covered the courts for one of the Toronto newspapers.

Based in a tiny office at 361 University Ave., I toiled day-in-and-day-out with my “partner in crime” longtime courts reporter Sam Pazzano.

During those many years of being involved with our justice system as an observer, I got to know the players, if not personally, certainly by their work. In fact, if you want to know who the good lawyers are, ask the courts reporters - they see everyone in action.

The same can be said about judges: they get to see most of the legal eagles, albeit from a different perspective than the scribes.

And, while I saw nearly all of the judges mete out justice from their perches, I admit I had my favourites.
 One of them was Humphrey - a.k.a. “The Tripper.”

I don’t think I was the only reporter who had a soft spot for “Merciful Dave.” Pazzano and I had more than one verbal wrestle over who’d get to cover cases in the fourth floor courtroom where Humphrey reigned.

Often, it wasn’t because of the case but rather it was just because it was Humphrey, whose talent for the written word made me suspect a well-thumbed thesaurus was tucked under his feet. From where I sat, he always gave us good quotes, and his delivery was second to none; if you ever heard him do it you know what I mean.

Humphrey, 83, passed away in his sleep on May 17.
Our page one story outlines his many accomplishments. Except for one: I saved it for this space.

I’m a Maritimer and thus Toronto folklore is something I’ve had to absorb over the years, rather than grow up with it magically lodged in my psyche as we all seem to do. One of those stories involves Ray “Bibbles” Bawel; Pazzano said the name practically every time he saw Humphrey and I would pretend to know what he was talking about since everyone else used to nod in reverence.

It wasn’t until last December, at a sold-out luncheon in honour of Humphrey when he was awarded the prestigious G. Arthur Martin Medal that I finally learned what Pazzano already knew. (It’s a measure of the man that nearly 10 years after his retirement Humphrey could still pack a room.)

That day Humphrey’s son David showed he inherited his father’s knack for delivery when he gave the keynote address in his dad’s honour. Here’s part of it from a story I wrote late last year:

But, in a humorous footnote, [David Jr.] said Humphrey Sr. was at the 1957 Grey Cup game in Varsity Stadium and had managed to talk his way onto the sidelines. At one point he looked up and spied the foreman of the Fitton jury in the stands, whom he had heard pressured the other jurors into a verdict of capital murder, said Humphrey.

“This brought a flood of dark memories. He felt the need for a stiff drink, or two. Fortuitously he just happened to have a full flask of whiskey with him. It seems that the alcohol overstimulated my father’s sense of humour.”

Hamilton player Ray “Bibbles” Bawel intercepted a pass, ran up the sidelines for a certain touchdown, and “as he passed my father, my father thought it would be funny to stick out his leg and trip him, which he did,” said Humphrey. “And so, in the football world, Dave has been known as ‘The Tripper’ ever since.”

As a defence lawyer Humphrey did the matter pro bono and paid the disbursements. He lost the case but gained a permanent footnote in Toronto history.

At the end of his son’s tribute, Humphrey, in his patented way, gave advice to the enraptured crowd: “When you’re retired as I am, you’ll look back on your lifestyle and I hope you can say, as I have said, it was a wonderful time.”

I had a wonderful time covering him.

- Gretchen Drummie

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