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Fifty years ago this week, Daniel E. Barry Jr. began work as a public defender, representing people who can't afford a lawyer.
And the 77-year-old lawyer says he can't imagine ever retiring.
"I loved it right from the get-go. There was an excitement to it. There was a purpose to it. You feel like you're doing something," Barry said at a reception this week in the Public Defender's Office at Buffalo City Court.
Needless to say, Barry has witnessed a lot as an attorney for Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.
.Years ago, people went to jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
.Defendants convicted of drug charges could end up on lifetime parole.
.The legal threshold for driving while intoxicated was 0.15 percent; now it is almost half, 0.08, with talk of further lowering it.
"When I started, Buffalo City Court had a domestic violence court, youth court and children's court. We were a sophisticated society and made them all into Erie County Family Court because we assumed we could solve every family's problems if they were all in one place. Now we are going back to boutique courts - domestic violence court, drug court, veterans court," Barry said.
But don't mistake those observations for sarcasm. The reason Barry says he has been able to survive and thrive in the criminal-justice system so long is because he goes with the flow and keeps his nose to the grindstone. With the typical public defender handling about 1,500 cases a year, there isn't much time to reflect.
"Society changes things, and you change with it. You're a lawyer, and the object is to defend people," he said. "There are some overzealous prosecutions, but I try not to think about it, so that I can live in the system."
He recalled his first criminal case.
"The judge said, 'Not guilty,'?" Barry said, "and I looked at my boss, Richard Boccio, and said, 'What do I do now?' Dick said, 'Close the file, and open up the next one.'?"
Barry's road to the legal profession was a bumpy one.
After graduating in 1952 from St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, he attended the University of Buffalo and flunked out after the first semester with four F's and one D. He blamed it on too much freedom.
A friend suggested they join the Marines, and Barry was on board, though it upset his father, who drove a bread truck and as a young man himself had dreamed of becoming a lawyer because of the good things a legal practice could do for people.
After serving from 1953 to 1956 in Korea, Barry returned home with a new attitude and obtained a degree from Canisius College "because UB wanted nothing to do with me." But after he proved himself at Canisius, UB's Law School accepted him.
On Sept. 13, 1962, he began work as a clerk at the Legal Aid Bureau. After passing the bar, his salary increased from $75 a week to $100 in the bureau's Civil Law Division. When an opening occurred in the Public Defender's Office, Boccio, whom he had gone to high school with, offered Barry the job.
It would be easy to say the rest is history, but his co-workers want the public to know that Barry is a self-effacing attorney who downplays his abilities.
Public defender Athena McCrory said, "I will never be half the lawyer he is, and if I get to be 10 percent of the lawyer he is, I will be lucky. He's like Atticus Finch, Clarence Darrow and Rambo all wrapped up into one, and we just love him," McCrory said.
She adds that he feels compassion for his clients but is able to separate himself from their often trying circumstances.
Barry says that's necessary.
"You have to focus on the law and your defense. I try not to get into the disenfranchised and impoverished aspects. They have a myriad of problems outside the law - physical, mental and addiction problems. It's a lot harder to do that than you think. You have to keep focused on that you're a lawyer. You are not a social worker. What they need from us is to go into court and fight for them."
Among those who showed up to celebrate were Barry's wife of 47 years, Mary, who provided pastries, including her famous pumpkin roll, and his daughter, Monica, who said he is not only a great lawyer, but a great dad.
In offering one parting insight on how he has managed to succeed, Barry said he has followed a motto of sorts to carry him through the good and tough times:
"You work hard. You make sure you've done everything you can. You play as if everything depends on the outcome, and you walk away as if nothing depends on the result."

email: lmichel@buffnews.com