As Minnesota's first chief bankruptcy judge, John Connelly didn't just deal with money issues. He used his calm demeanor and sense of empathy to make decisions that affected people's lives.
During the farm crisis in the 1980s, Connelly tried to balance the rights of banks and farmers, giving families the chance to restructure their finances and keep their property if possible.
"He was just a good, fair, decent human being," said Jim Lodoen, an attorney and former law partner. "That was strongly rooted in his [Catholic] faith."
Connelly, 91, died June 11 at his home in Mendota Heights of complications related to several health issues.
A St. Paul native, he grew up in the Como Park neighborhood in an old Catholic church that his father had converted into a house. He loved the city, family members said, returning there to get haircuts and attend mass throughout his life.
His parents, both Irish immigrants, met at a dance. His father worked at Northern States Power, where his children sometimes played on piles of coal, said his daughter, Kathy, of Minneapolis. His mother died when he was just 2.
Connelly graduated from Washington High School, where he excelled at football, hockey and baseball. "He was incredibly graceful," Kathy Connelly said.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944, where an injury in the Pacific theater caused him to lose much of his hearing. He returned home to attend college at Hamline University, and later the University of Minnesota on a hockey scholarship.
Inspired by his father's fight to unionize his workplace, Connelly attended the University of Notre Dame Law School. He married Mary Bigelow and they started a family as he went into private practice.
He often coached his sons' athletic teams, said his son, Tim, of Bloomington, who said he flooded the city rink himself each night to prepare for hockey practice. "He knew what it took to prepare you," Tim Connelly said.
Throughout his life, Connelly took great pride in his Irish heritage, telling ghost stories about haunted ruins in Ireland and filling his home with Irish music. He helped form the St. Patrick's Day Association in St. Paul in the 1960s and even served as "Mr. Pat" during the city's 1987 celebration.
In 1959, Connelly became an assistant U.S. attorney. His work included traveling to northern Minnesota during the formation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where he negotiated with landowners whose property would become part of the protected area. One woman, Dorothy Molter, refused to leave, and Connelly worked out a deal to let her remain on her land until she died.
He was appointed a bankruptcy referee in 1965, and in 1984 became Minnesota's first chief bankruptcy judge, holding that position until he stepped down in 1986. The Marathon Pipeline case, which challenged the constitutionality of the 1978 Bankruptcy Act, originated in his courtroom.
He returned to private practice in the Twin Cities for seven years before taking an appointment as a bankruptcy judge in the Eastern District of New York.
Family and colleagues said that Connelly's patience and big heart extended outside the courtroom, where they said he would talk to the doorman just as he would a wealthy client. "You never felt rushed and you didn't need status to rank in his book," Lodoen said. "John gave others the most important gift — the gift of time."
Besides his wife, Mary, of Mendota Heights, daughter Kathy and son Tim, Connelly is survived by his sons Thomas and Michael, both of Phoenix, and John and Brian, both of Minneapolis; daughter, Maureen, of Woodbury; and 10 grandchildren. Services have been held.