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July 2004

Judge Barbara Howe

The New Erie County Surrogate


     Madeline Keyser, head teacher at Fillmore Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia was quite impressed by a bright little girl in first grade.

    "What a wonderful pupil," she wrote in 1954, in a progress report to the youngster's parents. "Barbara has made outstanding progress, reads well and with expression. She is quite interested in all school activities..."

    She continued: "Barbara has completed all the basic books for the first year and has done quite a bit of independent reading. Barbara has contributed so much to our group this year. She has self-confidence and is trustworthy. Best of all, she has a sense of humor."

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Grandparents, Tom and Luella Devine, and sister Joan - 1957 At age 2 - 1949
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First day of first grade - 1953 Brownie Joan and Girl Scout Barbara - 1957

    Fifty years later, Erie County Surrogate Judge Barbara Howe is still achieving and earning rave reviews.

    The daughter of parents who were born and raised in Brooklyn, Barbara Howe was born in Neptune, New Jersey. At that time, her father, Walter, was chief armament inspector at Fort Dix. Her mother, the late Nathalie Howe, and younger sister, Joan, (now Joan Howe Walsh, Ph.D. of Linden, California) completed the Howe family.

    In 1953, the Howes relocated to Washington, D.C., where Dad filled the top editor post at The American Rifleman Magazine and was editorial director of all National Rifle Association publications.

    From her Fillmore Elementary years through to graduation from Yorktown High School, Barbara Howe benefited from what she describes as "a fine public school education."

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Yorktown High Senior Prom - 1965 Niece Tia joins mom and Aunt Barbara - 1985
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At Bunratty Castle, Ireland, tracing Mom’s Irish roots - 1981 Parents Walter and the late Nathalie Howe

    Starting college in Ohio State University's history honors program, she transferred to the University at Connecticut after two years to be closer to her parents, who had moved to Fairfield County. By then, her father had a new editorial position, with Connecticut-based Management Publishing Group.

    Armed with a bachelor's degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key, it was on to Cornell University, where Barbara earned both a master's degree and a Ph.D. in sociology.

    What would prove to be a fortunate day for Western New York occurred 30 years ago, when she arrived at State University of Buffalo to begin her first professional career -- as an assistant professor of sociology. While still teaching sociology, she took her first steps- literally- toward her second career, when she walked across the U.B. campus to attend classes at the School of Law. "I had always wanted to go to law school, and when the opportunity arose, I took advantage of it, " Judge Howe recalled. Once she graduated from law school and passed the New York State Bar, Barbara Howe's law career was set at full speed ahead.

    Her early work included pro bono assignments for Legal Aid. Later, she took a non-paid leave of absence from her U.B. faculty position to serve as a law clerk for Judge Edgar NeMoyer in the Buffalo District Office of the New York State Court of Claims.

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Running for City Court Running for State Supreme Court
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At Ebony & Ivory Dinner
with some colleagues - early 1990s
Conducting YWCA Institute for
Political Leadership training class - 1991

    Of pivotal importance was her decision to get involved in politics in the early 1980s, when she became active in the Rev. Jesse Jackson's first Presidential campaign. "That's when I met the Arthur O. Eve family, and others who have remained close friends over all these years," Judge Howe said. She has longtime friendships across the political spectrum, and has been a stalwart supporter of minority community issues.
    Successful the first time she ran for a judicial position - Buffalo City Court, where she served from 1988 to 1991, she was elected a New York State Supreme Court Justice in 1992. She served there until 2003, when she became the first woman elected Erie County Surrogate Judge.

    For Judge Howe, "politics" can be a good word. She is proud that her opponent for State Supreme Court in 1991, John B. Sheffer II, now a professor and executive director of the Institute for Regional Growth at U.B., spoke on her behalf when the GOP nominated her for Surrogate Judge. Her candidacy also was endorsed by the Democratic, Conservative, Independence and Working Families political parties.

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With then Buffalo Councilmen Joel Giambra
and David Rutecki - 1987
With dear friend
Constance Eve - 1987
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At City Court Swearing-in with
Judge Edgar NeMoyer - 1988

    Judge Howe's ties to U.B. are strong. She remains an adjunct professor of sociology, and an adjunct clinical professor of law there. Professor William Greiner, former U.B. president, spoke at her swearing-in ceremony on January 2. Also speaking was Gene Vukelic, chairman and chief executive officer of Try-It Distributing Co., Inc., whom she had selected to chair her campaign. "It was a tremendous honor to have Gene serve in that capacity because he is a person of the highest integrity. He is a quality person who reflects the values I embrace," she said.

    At Surrogate's Court, Judge Howe oversees a staff of 35. The court handles matters relating to wills, estates and property of deceased persons. It processes guardianships for children under age 18 and persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. It shares authority with Erie County Family Court to hear adoption proceedings.

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Skiing at Bear Valley, CA. with Joe Rollerblading with nephew Joe
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Dr. John Walsh, Dr. Joan Howe Walsh, and young Joe

    "It is the greatest privilege and a matter of trust to assume the leadership challenges of a post occupied with distinction by Judge Joseph S. Mattina for 22 years," she said. At her right hand are two individuals who have worked closely with her for many years - law clerk Joseph Shifflett (23 years) and secretary Martha Howe (no relation to Judge Howe), whom she met in 1979.

    There are a number of administrative issues facing Surrogate's Court this year, including relocation from the first floor of Erie County Hall to the second floor. A new case management technology system will be installed. Judge Howe has begun working on a three to five year comprehensive strategic plan. Under discussion is a new program to allow occasional sessions of Surrogate's Court to be held in town court settings throughout the county.

    "My first priority is educating the public about the work of the Surrogate, emphasizing some functions that perhaps are less well known," she said. Judge Howe recently created a basic information brochure to be available in English and Spanish.

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With Walsh family dogs - 2001 Enjoying time with pet cat - 1991

    She is proud that her first opportunity to fill an opening among the trustees of the Statler Foundation, which she oversees, brought aboard Bernard Tolbert, a former head of the Buffalo District Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "He will be welcomed as an outstanding addition to this dedicated board," she said.

    Often asked about important influences in her life, Judge Howe always replies: "I owe everything to my parents." She describes the "happy and nourished environment" they provided for her and her sister, and traces so many of her interests to them.

    Thanks to her mother, having her own public library card became a treasured childhood possession, and opened up a lifelong love of books, learning and ideas. Her first trip abroad at age 16, with her mother and sister, was to England and France, the same destinations of Judge Howe's two European trips in the past year. Judge Howe is an avid traveler. Mrs. Howe died in 2002. Mr. Howe, nearing his 85th birthday, still resides in Connecticut.

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Former Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve joins well-wishers - 2004 Former Surrogate Judge Joseph S. Mattina - 2001
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Judge Howe with Katie Couric. Couric’s late sister Emily was Judge Howe’s high school classmate. Cornell University President Jeffrey Lehman - 2004

    Judge Howe is close to her sister, Dr. Joan Howe Walsh, who is a professor of nutrition in California's state college system. She enjoys visiting the Walsh family - Joan's husband, Dr. John Walsh, a research microbiologist; and their children, Tia and Joseph. Joan held the Bible when Judge Howe was sworn in as Surrogate Judge.
    A look through the Howe family album reveals Judge Howe's great love of animals. Today, Calvin the cat shares her Buffalo home. A former member of the Erie County SPCA Board, Judge Howe conceived a course that the SPCA now provides through the courts to persons who exhibit cruelty or neglect of animals.

    Cited as the first of its kind in the nation, the five-hour session is available for those charged with animal abuse. A judge could recommend attendance in lieu of or in addition to jail time. Judge Howe believes that there is strong link between those who abuse animals and later victimize people. "If my efforts stopped even one incident of animal abuse, that is the legacy for which I would want to be remembered," she said.

    Her current board memberships reflect her many interests. Among them are vice president, Women Judges of the State of New York; vice president, the One Hundred Club; President's Council of Cornell Women; and St. Augustine Center. She is a past president of the U.B. Law School Alumni Association and a past president of the Women Lawyers of Western New York.

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Campaign Chair Gene Vukelic - 2004 Senior Judge Samuel Green and Presiding Judge Eugene Pigott Appellate Division, Fourth Department - 2004
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Sister holds the Bible as Judge Samuel Green swears in Surrogate Judge Howe - 2004 With fiance John Alexanderson

    Judge Howe is a fitness enthusiast, who enjoys running and working out daily. She loves flowers and plants, which are her gifts of choice when remembering special occasions in her friends' lives. Her outgoing personality, sincere interest in others, willingness to listen and eagerness to help solve problems have won her a legion of loyal friends and supporters.

    As Judge Howe's professional life this year is distinguished by a new role as Surrogate Judge, so is there an exciting new role in her personal life. She and West Seneca businessman John Alexanderson recently announced that they are engaged to be married.

Mary Ann Lauricella is a Public Relations consultant and freelance writer.

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