Enduring image Judge remembered as 'champion for kids'

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

If a man's life could be portrayed by what he did and who he was, it would be easy to fashion such a picture for Luke Quinn.

He would be sitting astride a galloping horse, judicial robes flowing, clinging safely to a youngster with a few newspapers tucked under his arm. Quinn also would likely have a racing form and a few casino chips in his pocket, a striking portrait of the quintessential Kentucky Colonel.

Quinn, 81, died June 22 in Indiana while traveling from his Kentucky home to the Flint area. But while alive, he was a Genesee County probate judge who was revered for his innovative ideas in meting out justice to wayward juveniles; a Michigan State Racing commissioner; and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves.

He also was a loving father and grandfather, a professional who did not take himself all that seriously, and a loyal friend who was as famous for his storytelling as he was for his smooth, Southern lilt and charm.

"He was a kind, gentle caring man and very sensitive," said his daughter, Susan Wolverton, a teacher living in Swartz Creek.

She said he was proud to be a judge, and proud to be the State Racing commissioner, because of what it meant to his family.

"When we were kids, we were awed by him," she said.

That awe turned to pride as they all aged, but their father never placed himself on a pedestal, and breezed through life with a great sense of humor, making friends wherever he went.

Wolverton said the local newspaper printed online a few remembrances friends shared of her dad, and one man said that when he first met Quinn the judge remarked, "My name's Luke, but I ain't no saint."

Quinn was born in Patesville, Ky,, on December 23, 1930, the oldest of six children to Marquis and Alma (Snyder) Quinn. Growing up in rural Kentucky, he helped out on the family tobacco farm, and attended a one-room schoolhouse.

Wolverton said the family was poor, their fortunes tied to the rise and fall of the tobacco industry, but that did not stop him from continuing his education and graduating from Western Kentucky University with a bachelor of arts degree.

"He loved learning, reading and writing, and he had this thirst for knowledge," she said.

He was also in the Reserved Officer Training Corps in college, and joined the Air Force. He served in California during the Korean War, and later was stationed in Michigan as provost marshal at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda where he met Rena Novak, his future wife. They married in 1955.

From 1958-60, he was stationed in Saudi Arabia, and then worked for McCormick Spice Co. after leaving active service. Quinn remained in the Air Force Reserves until 1974, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Quinn and his wife and family returned to Michigan, living on her parents' farm in Clio while he attended Wayne State University Law School, graduating in 1964. His first job was as an assistant attorney general for Michigan. After several years there, Quinn went into private practice in Clio, and became a 67th District Court judge in 1969 before being appointed Genesee County Probate Court judge in 1970.

"He loved helping people as a judge, and was big into giving kids a second chance," Wolverton said. "He knew just the right amount of discipline to give out."

Quinn was sought out to present his views on juvenile justice, and wrote papers on it and appeared on Public Broadcasting System show talking about it. Former Chief Genesee County Probate Judge Allen Nelson, 67th District Court Judge Larry Stecco, and Genesee County Clerk Michael Carr all considered themselves great friends of Quinn, and all have fond memories of their personal and professional times together.

"He considered me as one of his closest friends, and I felt likewise about him," said Nelson, who also served nearly 20 years as Probate Court judge.

Nelson called him "an excellent judge" who was well known across the country for his "rehabilitative approach" to juvenile justice.

"He said you can always lock somebody up, but most deserve a chance, and, if necessary, you can lock them up later. But he believed you should try to work with the kids first," Nelson said.

Others echoed that work-first philosophy.

"He was an excellent judge, an excellent friend, kind, understanding and very intelligent," Stecco said. "He had a relaxed atmosphere in his court when dealing with people, so that they felt comfortable with him. And he was a champion for kids, and nationally recognized for his innovative policies in working with juveniles."

Carr met Quinn in the early 1970s, while Carr was on the Genesee County Board of Commissioners and Quinn was on the Probate Court bench. The two worked on a number of issues and Carr said Quinn "saved a lot of money for the county."

"He was a really good, progressive guy on bench, always looking for better ways to serve the community," Carr said.

Quinn and his wife divorced in 1974, but remained friendly, Wolverton said.

"She was a big part of his life," she said, and often included Quinn in holiday get-togethers.

After retiring from the bench in 1989, Quinn lobbied for and received an appointment as the State Racing commissioner.

"He got a kick out of that," Wolverton said. "Being a Kentucky boy, and the tradition of horse racing and the Kentucky Derby, he used to laugh with us that being a judge was okay, but being a racing commissioner, now, that was IT."

Quinn loved horse racing and casinos, and took advantage of many opportunities to engage in both. But by putting all those parts of the man together - his judicial position, racing commissioner, an officer in the Air Force - and he became that smooth figure known as a Kentucky Colonel.

"It's a high accolade to call someone a Kentucky Colonel, and he was one," Stecco said.

At the time, Carr was the Michigan Lottery commissioner, and he said Quinn would joke about it.

"It was kind of funny to him that two guys from Flint were running the only two legal gambling operations in Michigan," Carr said.

Carr, Nelson and Stecco said Quinn followed the horses, and knew what horse was running where. Carr said Quinn tried to teach him how to bet on horses, and considered himself somewhat of an expert.

But in an article Wolverton has in her keepsakes of her father, Quinn told the author otherwise. He said if you're from Kentucky, people assume you know everything about horses.

"Actually, I spent more time looking at a mules behind plowing the tobacco fields on my dad's farm than I ever did riding horses," Quinn said.

Wolverton said her father would take the family to tracks occasionally and show off for his grandchildren.

He left that position in 1992 and returned to Kentucky, to be close to family, escape Michigan winters, and enjoy a little law practice. But he returned often to Flint, to visit the dentist, do his taxes, or just visit with friends. Quinn had a heart attack and bypass surgery in recent months, and wanted to move back to Flint, Wolverton said. Quinn told her it was minor because it was "only a single bypass, and he didn't want to worry us."

"He wanted to come back here, one way or the other," Wolverton said.

Although he walked and exercised, friends and family worried about him and his health. But she said her father would brush off any concerns and use a sick sense of humor in telling her often his funeral plans.

"He was famous for always giving me after-death instructions," Wolverton said. "He'd say, 'If I should pop off in the next day or two, I don't want to cost anybody any money, just mail me back to Flint.' "

Stecco, Nelson, Carr and others said he was one of a kind.

"He was just a very warm and charming guy," Stecco said, referring to his Southern hospitality. "He had that accent, and he made you feel very comfortable, not just the lawyers, but the people who came before him."

He was not one to put on airs, either. Stecco said at gatherings, people would introduce themselves as Judge This, and Judge That. But not Quinn. "He'd say 'Hi, I'm Luke Quinn' in this southern drawl."

"There was no phoniness to him," Carr said. "His mannerisms were different than most people, and he was just a loyal guy to anyone who was loyal to him."

"Anyone who met him would never forget him," he said. "And I never met anyone who didn't like him."

Nelson remembers a great friend with "a charming, smooth southern lilt."

Genesee Circuit Judge Richard Yuille, who is chief judge of both Genesee Circuit Court and the District Court, said he first met Quinn when he was a young lawyer, and as a fill-in judge for him after Quinn retired.

"He had the best judicial temperament of any judge I've ever met, practiced before or been associated with," Yuille said. "He never got angry, never became intemperate in terms of his conduct in the courtroom, and probably never said anything in court that he regretted, and I don't think there are too many judges around who could say that."

Quinn is survived by his former wife; daughters Susan (Dale) Wolverton of Swartz Creek, Laure (Alan) Smith) Quinn of Silver Spring, Md., and Kathryn (Ron) Satow of Hermosa Beach, Calif.; a son, Michael (Sima Lotfi) Quinn of Rockville, Md.; grandchildren Matthew and Marcus Wolverton, Isabel Smith, and Quinn Satow; a great-grandson on the way; brothers Clay (Shirlene) Quinn and Ray Quinn; and sisters Mary Lee Quinn and Joan (Charles) King.

Swartz Funeral Home will hold a memorial service at a later date. Cremains will be interred at Glenwood Cemetery in Flint with military honors. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Quinn's name to Whaley Children's Center, 1201 N. Grand Traverse St., Flint, 48503.

Published: Wed, Jul 11, 2012