STEUBENVILLE — Fairness and kindness are words that can describe the best people.
They are among those that friends and colleagues are using to remember Sam Kerr.
“He truly was a great man, a person who has left a tremendous legacy of just being nice,” said Joe Corabi. “That’s what you think of when you think of Sam.”
Corabi has served as Jefferson County’s probate and juvenile judge since 2015 when he replaced Kerr, who was 80 when he died on Jan. 15 at Acuity Care Center at Weirton Medical Center.
A Steubenville native and graduate of Wintersville High School, Kerr spent 45 years as a judge in the county’s court system, administering the law and making an impact on everyone who appeared in his courtroom — especially attorneys who were just getting started in their profession.
“When it came to young lawyers, he was a mentor,” Corabi said. “He was accommodating, helpful and supportive.
“He appointed me to the first case I ever had,” Corabi continued. “It was in 1977, and he appointed me to a case in his court. He was the first judge I ever practiced in front of, and I wish every judge treated every litigant and attorney the way he did. The way he treated young lawyers was amazing. He endeared himself to everybody he came in contact with. He had the amazing ability to relate to all people from all walks of life.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many, including John J. Mascio Jr., the judge in Steubenville’s municipal court.
“I came back to town in 1981 and, like all young attorneys, I did a lot of court-appointed work in juvenile court,” Mascio said. “He really helped me as a young attorney and offered advice to me — he was a mentor. He had an open-door policy and was very approachable.”
A wide range of cases is heard in juvenile and probate court, and Kerr always was able to apply the right touch.
“He had a real feel for the job,” Mascio explained. “He had compassion and a feel for people. One of the things that court does is mental health hearings. Now, the easy thing was to just send people to the state hospital, but one thing Kerr did was he always looked for alternatives so the people involved could get the services they needed.”
Kerr completed undergraduate studies at Washington and Jefferson College and earned his law degree from Ohio State University. He officially became a lawyer under unusual circumstances –he learned he had passed the bar examination while serving as an artillery captain in Korea and, after receiving special permission from the Ohio Supreme Court, was sworn in by Lt. Gen. Andrew J. Boyle.
When Kerr returned to Steubenville and began practicing law, he and Adam Scurti were among the attorneys who worked for the same firm. The two would become good friends.
“Sam was a person who was humble, who tried to do his job in as fair a way as possible and who was reasonable as a judge,” Scurti said. “He didn’t try to do anything that would make you feel smaller than any other person. He was fair and classy — but when he had to be tough, he could do that, too.”
Scurti said Kerr’s family was important to him. That included his wife of 47 years, Emily; daughters Laurie Larue and Melinda Humphreys and her husband, Jack; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A son, Samuel William “Billy” Kerr, died in 2015.
Kerr and Scurti served as county court judges, Scurti in Wintersville and Kerr in Dillonvale, a post he held from 1970 to 1990.
“One of the delights of my life came when Sam and Emily were married,” Scurti said. “I was the officiating judge, or minister I guess, at the wedding, and the late Caz Adulewicz (another partner in their firm) was the best man. Sam was a good attorney, a perfect gentleman and an excellent husband. They had a good marriage — I have nothing but good memories of the time we spent together.”
Kerr also enjoyed the outdoors, Scurti added, and held memberships in the Amateur Trapshooting Association, the Jefferson County Sportsmans Club, the Mingo Sportsmans Club and was a lifetime member of the Friendship Park board.
“He loved to go hunting and fishing, and he always had dogs around. He was a classy, lovable person,” Scurti explained.
Kerr’s kindness and willingness to help others were among his attributes that really stood out.
“He remembered what it was like to be a practicing attorney,” Scurti said. “He never forgot that lesson. When young attorneys came into his courtroom, he made sure he wouldn’t crack the whip on them because they were inexperienced.”
Retired Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge John J. Mascio Sr. agreed.
“Sam was a hard-working attorney and a friend,” the elder Mascio said. “He was down to earth and treated everyone the same. He always was willing to work with younger attorneys, and take them in after court was over and explain to them what they did well and what they could have done better.”
Kerr was elected to the probate and juvenile bench in 1990 and oversaw many changes and improvements to court programs before his retirement. Those included a move of the juvenile portion of the court from the courthouse to the county Justice Center in 1998, which allowed for an expanded detention facility. Mediation, community service and truancy programs, drug court and the alternative school are among the programs that grew under his watch.
“He developed gardens behind the justice center and had juveniles plant vegetables and other things in them,” the younger Mascio said. “It was a great source of pride for those kids and exposed them to something that, in all likelihood, they would have never been exposed to. I always said the kids in this county were lucky to have (Sheriff) Fred Abdalla, and right behind him, Judge Kerr.”
Corabi, who served as judge for 24 years in Toronto county court before replacing Kerr, has decided to retire from the bench. He plans to swear in his successor in probate and juvenile court, Frank Noble, on Feb. 8. Noble, a veteran of the court, has served as magistrate there for 10 years. He said lessons learned from Kerr and Corabi will be valuable.
“Sam served as a mentor to me,” Noble said. “I got to see how he handled himself in the court, and how he treated everyone. He was a great guy, and he treated everyone the same. He was never too high and never too low — and that’s how I have tried to approach my job.”
Kerr died of complications from COVID-19, and private services were conducted by the Dunlope-Shorac Funeral Home. It’s a change brought on by the pandemic which has shortened, or in many cases eliminated, visitation.
“What is sad, is that before all of this with COVID, the bar association would get together and draft a resolution when a member died,” according to the younger Mascio. “And then we would all show up at the funeral home and read the resolution. It’s sad that we don’t have the opportunity to do that for him and family.”
While that was not possible, memories of Kerr’s kindness and concern he showed others remain appreciated.
“Sam was a great father, a great husband and a great friend, and that’s what made him a great man,” Corabi said. “He extended a helping hand to so many of us when we were growing up, and that’s why so many people loved him.
“It might seem like it’s hard to believe, but it’s impossible to be too nice, and he taught me that, not by his words, but through his actions. We all learned from him — you wanted to treat people like he did. He was a mentor, but he never pontificated. He always made you feel good about yourself and let you know that you were important to him,” Corabi added.
“He really was a unique individual,” Corabi said. “He was nice to everybody, and that is something that has been lost in this country right now. We need to have a bunch more Sam Kerrs.”
(Gallabrese can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)