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Bar News - July 20, 2016

Dover Attorney Freddy Catalfo Left an Indelible Impression


It was late in 1974, or maybe early 1975, a regular day in Somersworth District Court, and the judge was working his way through the criminal docket. A woman with a baby had been charged with passing bad checks.

Danny Cappiello was a young attorney, hired about a year earlier as an associate to Fred Catalfo Jr., the boisterous Italian lawyer who’d developed a reputation among New Hampshire’s small bar for his unique style and legendary courtroom manner. Though he ran a successful general practice in Dover, Catalfo was known for his criminal defense work.

The two lawyers waited in the courtroom for their case to be called as the judge ruled that the young woman, who was facing several counts of check fraud, should be held on cash bail.

“He spun out of that chair so fast and went up to the bench,” recalls Cappiello of his mentor, Catalfo, “and he said, ‘You can’t do this, judge. This is an injustice. She’s got a baby. I’m going to take this case, and my name is Freddy Catalfo,’ as if he had to introduce himself.”

Catalfo was a flashy dresser: His trademark velvet jacket was typically accessorized with rhinestone cufflinks, a large metallic belt buckle and, back in those days, a fat cigar that he’d puff at every court recess. When asked why he preferred this kind of loud and showy fashion, Catalfo was likely to say something like, “Because when I walk into a courtroom, I want everyone to know I’m there.”

To someone who doesn’t understand the arc of Catalfo’s life – which ended April 14, 2016, after 99 years – it could seem narcissistic to want to draw so much attention, but the more one learns about Catalfo, the clearer it becomes that Catalfo wanted to draw attention to himself not for his own sake, but for the benefit of his clients.

“I think he’d want to be remembered as a kind person who treated everybody equally,” says Cappiello, who remained a lifelong friend of Catalfo’s and eventually became a District Court judge himself, “because he believed everybody was equal – he really truly believed that – and he believed he was put on this earth to help people, and he thought he did a pretty good job of it.”

Humble Beginnings

Catalfo was born in Lawrence, Mass., the son of poor Italian immigrants who did not speak English. His parents had lost two children to illness before Catalfo was born. When he was old enough, Catalfo went to work, cleaning toilets in a mill to help make money for the family.

He quit after five years to pursue a high school education at Berwick Academy in Maine; he was 19 years old. “People made fun of him for both his lack of English skills and because he was older, but by the time he was through high school, he had become editor of the school newspaper,” says his son, attorney and filmmaker Alfred Catalfo III.

After high school, the elder Catalfo attended the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where he was the smallest player on the football team. He served as a US Navy pilot in World War II, until a plane crash left him in critical condition for 11 days and in a body cast for nine months. Doctors considered amputating his arm, but he fought them to keep it, and when he eventually became a lawyer, he served as Department Commander and as Judge Advocate of the New Hampshire Disabled American Veterans for more than 60 years.

Following the war, Catalfo studied history at the University of New Hampshire and completed law school in two years at Boston University Law School. As the story goes, Catalfo worked briefly at a law firm, until one day he was asked to evict the widow of a railroad worker from her company housing. “He said she looked just like his mother, so he went back to the office and said he couldn’t find her and quit, and that’s when he opened his own practice,” his son explains.

Always a Mentor, Never a Partner

Stu Dedopoulos will never forget the first day he met Catalfo, in 1977. Nine months out of law school, he’d been searching for a job, when he learned through the NH Bar Association that Catalfo had an opening. He arrived at the office in Dover, with its eclectic décor and a waiting room full of people, presumably Catalfo’s clients.

“If I wasn’t this good, I wouldn’t be this busy,” exclaimed Catalfo, his arms raised in the air as he exited his office to greet his dumbfounded interviewee.

Barefoot in green bellbottoms, a thatch of gray hair protruding from his wide-collared shirt, Catalfo ushered the shy, Greek lawyer into his bright red office. With his feet propped up on the desk, Catalfo barely looked at Dedopoulos’s resumé as he flicked ashes from his cigar onto the floor, despite the numerous nearby ashtrays.

“So, you want the job?”

Eager to get started, Dedopoulos accepted, and after one day of shadowing Catalfo, the new attorney was flung into the deep end. “It was trial by fire,” says Dedopoulos, who quickly learned the ropes and got the kind of trial experience that few young lawyers today receive in their early years.

Catalfo made it clear to all his associates that he wasn’t interested in taking on a partner. He liked being the man in charge, but he was happy to employ them and share his knowledge for as long as they wanted to learn from him. “I learned how it was important to try to be a commanding presence in the courtroom, whether you did it his way or a more subtle way,” says Dedopoulos. “He taught me that it was very important to have a good relationship with the staff at the courthouse and also to be respectful toward the judges, and to never treat other lawyers poorly outside the courtroom.”

“Freddy had a chip on his shoulder, too,” adds Cappiello. “He was brought up in an Italian family where nobody spoke English including him. They were discriminated against, as were a lot of immigrants in those days, and he had a little chip on his shoulder to try to overcome that discrimination and do something about it, and by God he did.”

Catalfo threw all of his energy into fighting for his clients. “He was a go-getter,” Cappiello says. “He never stopped. We tried criminal cases together, and if we had a trial the next day, we’d work all day and all night. We’d drive around looking for more witnesses or evidence or whatever the case may be. He would not give up if he thought we could improve our case.”

Proud Single Father

In 1968, when Catalfo was 51, his first wife, Caroline Mosca Catalfo, died of cancer, leaving Catalfo with three young children, ages 10, 5 and 3, to raise on his own. “He took on the role of mother and father,” says his son. “He was always there for us when we needed him, and he really wanted us all to do well.”

Two of the children, Alfred Catalfo III and his sister, Carole Catalfo of Louisville, Kentucky, became attorneys. Their sister, Dr. Gina Mireault, practices medicine in Waterbury Center, Vermont.

“He was always focused on being an attorney,” his son said. “That’s all he ever wanted to be... He thought it was a greatest thing you could be.”

Life as Catalfo’s son wasn’t always easy. The father and son practiced law together, along with the late Catalfo’s wife, attorney and NH Bar member Gail Varney Catalfo, to whom he was married for 44 years and who now lives in Tennessee.

“He was a legendary guy and he was also your dad,” says Alfred Catalfo. “He was pretty demanding, and he was really boisterous, but he was also a big-hearted, kind, loving guy, so it was a great experience, and I always knew I’d look back on it and say, ‘Wow, I got to practice law with my dad for 15 years.’ I certainly learned a lot.”

A Love of Politics

The walls of Catalfo’s office were plastered with pictures of him with prominent politicians, who made his ornate Italian home a must-stop on the Democratic campaign trail. Catalfo served as chairman of the state Democratic Party, was elected to two terms as Strafford County Attorney and won the Democratic nomination to the US Senate in 1962.

Lincoln Soldati says Catalfo “basically invented the selfie.” As soon as a politician arrived at his house for a campaign party, Catalfo shoved his camera into the hands of another guest or one of his children and struck a pose next to the guest of honor.

Soldati, who served as Strafford County Attorney for 18 years, says he owes his professional trajectory to Catalfo’s guidance and political know-how. “He encouraged me to run and then he literally drew up a campaign strategy,” Soldati recalls. “He laid it all out and told me exactly what I needed to do, and then he was really, in essence, my campaign manager. He would call me up at 5 in the morning and say, ‘I’ll meet you at the gates of GE at 6 a.m. for the shift change…’ and of course, he knew everybody and he’d introduce me to everybody.”

“That’s why I became county attorney, because he essentially took me under his wing. It was quite the experience. He was just an incredible man, perhaps the most generous person I ever met in my entire life... generous with his spirit and his time and his willingness to share whatever it is he had to share with you, in any way it might help you. I loved the man. He was a great guy, and I was very sad when he passed.”

Lessons for Life and Law

Ask anyone who knew him what stood out most about the way Catalfo practiced law and chances are you’ll get some combination of anecdotes about his passionate cross-examinations and his ability to let things go, to not take things too personally.

He was a cut-to-the-chase, no-holds-barred kind of person and lawyer, but he was always ready to help and he believed strongly in the important work of being a lawyer.

As a wide-eyed new lawyer, Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara prosecuted some major cases at the NH Attorney General’s Office opposite Catalfo in the 1970s. “He was always a true gentlemen,” McNamara said recently during an interview in his chambers. “He never took anything personally and he never made personal attacks against anyone, but he was certainly unconventional.”

Lawyers like Catalfo, who aren’t afraid to be themselves and who find ways to use their uniqueness to benefit their clients, are becoming fewer and farther between as time passes. Asked why that might be, McNamara struggled to find the reason.

“I don’t know. I think more people tend to work in larger firms or in firms with institutional clients. No, that’s not it. I think the expectations of lawyers are different. I think lawyers now probably are more reluctant to be themselves. I think to practice law the way Freddy did, you have to have a great deal of self-confidence, and that self-confidence is something that I think probably has to be developed over years. I think the bar was much smaller then and people could sort of indulge their own personalities. I mean judges used to do things that would be unheard of today… You know, that’s a good question. I can’t honestly give you a good answer to that question.”

Soldati, who is in the process of winding down his Portsmouth law practice, says attorneys who are new to the practice of law could benefit from a greater understanding of Catalfo’s style and the way he could always let the professional battles go once he left the courtroom.

“He taught people by his example to not take yourself so seriously and to understand that what we do as lawyers is important, but at the end of the day, we’re people, we’re human, and we need to respect each other, and we need to not take things personally. I worry sometimes that doesn’t often get conveyed today, and things can get a little rough at times, in terms of the way people deal with each other,” Soldati said. “There was a time when we actually referred to other attorneys as our brother or sister, and I realize that’s a bit of an anachronism now, but I think what that conveyed was a sense of respect for each other that is sometimes lost, and I really think that was so much of what Freddy was about. He loved life and he loved people, and that showed in the way he dealt with everyone.”

In 2014, Catalfo self-published his autobiography, Undefeated: Scored on Once, in which he chronicled his struggle to become a lawyer and his fight to serve his family, his friends, his clients and himself. In a chapter titled “My Philosophy” is a quote that has given his friends and family comfort and guidance since his passing:

“Remember, everyone has their issues to deal with and chances are good that yours aren’t the worst in the room. Yes, I have lived in poverty, had a plane crash, and lost my wife, but that does not make me some special wounded person that gets a pass when it comes to being a decent human being. There are, in fact, other people besides me on the planet. Getting wrapped up in your tragedy will eventually have you looking back on a life that hasn’t been lived but one that has simply been suffered through.”

“He was such a huge presence that we’ve really felt it now that he’s not here,” his son said recently, “but 99 years old is such a great run that we all really want to celebrate that, and have been able to do that to an extent. He really loved life and lived life.”

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