In his law office, John J. Curtin Jr. prominently displayed a portrait of Thomas More, the Catholic saint executed in the 16th century for holding fast to his beliefs, and on a table he kept a less conspicuous statuette of Don Quixote.
The former served “to remind me that there are some matters of principle that you should not be prepared to give up,” he told the Globe in 1989, while the later sounded a silent note of caution. “I’m afraid I have to remind myself I sometimes tilt at windmills.”
Dedicated to helping the powerless, and always willing to take on the impossible, Mr. Curtin was chairman for many years of the litigation department at the firm that is now Bingham McCutchen. He also was one of the nation’s leading advocates for legal aid for the poor, taking on the Reagan administration’s attempts to eliminate funding and helping found the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.
“He had a tremendous moral compass,” said his son Joe of Wellesley, who also is a lawyer. “He knew the right thing to do, and he would do it, even when it wasn’t the best thing for him. He always said to us: ‘When you have a tough decision to make, figure out the right thing to do, and then do it.’ ”
Mr. Curtin, a former president of the American Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association, died Monday in North Hill, a senior living community in Needham, where he had moved after many years in Wellesley. He was 80 and was diagnosed with cancer 23 years ago, persevering as it metastasized and returned again and again.
In the face of such challenges, he had a “life-affirming bounce,” Rudolph Kass, a former justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, wrote in an e-mail. Such spirit carried over into all institutions Mr. Curtin’s life touched.
The American Bar Association awards annual fellowships in Mr. Curtin’s name to help pay three law school students to spend a summer working for a legal services program “designed to prevent homelessness or assist homeless or indigent clients.”
“Jack was a tireless and passionate advocate for legal assistance for everyone, particularly those who couldn’t afford it on their own,” said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, on whose board Mr. Curtin had served.
At Boston College, Mr. Curtin and his wife founded the John J. and Mary Daly Curtin Center for Public Interest Law and established a Curtin fellowship for students who work in the public interest. Boston College Law School also presents a Curtin award annually to a lawyer who is committed to pro bono work and whose actions exemplify “the school’s mission to train a diverse student body not purely to be good lawyers, but to be lawyers who lead good lives,” Vincent Rougeau, dean of the law school, said in a statement about Mr. Curtin, who taught at the law school for many years.
Mr. Curtin’s life “is a shining example of what we hold most dear at Boston College Law School,” Rougeau added.
“I always admired him very much,” said Stephen Breyer, an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. “He was everything a lawyer should be.”
Born in Englewood, N.J., Mr. Curtin grew up in West Roxbury and Dedham, the oldest of four children whose father was a cement flooring contractor. Mr. Curtin helped out on job sites, and in the decades that followed remained as close to the support staff at tony clubs and national associations as he was to the top officials with whom he dined.
“He knew what it was like to be the cement carrier,” said his son Kevin of Wellesley, an assistant Middlesex district attorney. “We would go to the BC Club at lunch and the people would come out of the kitchen and come over to the table. That happened all the time. It was always the regular people who loved him so much.”
Mr. Curtin was a Triple Eagle, a graduate of Boston College High School (1950), Boston College (1954), and Boston College Law School (1957). He also received a master of laws degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1959.
A year earlier, he had married Mary Daly, a Regis College student he had met while he was studying at Boston College. They shared her longtime advocacy for the homeless.
After serving as a trial attorney in the US Justice Department’s antitrust division, Mr. Curtin returned to Boston when Robert F. Kennedy, the US attorney general, appointed him an assistant US attorney for Massachusetts.
He later joined what is now Bingham McCutchen, where he established himself as “a giant in our profession, a true gentleman and an all-around wonderful human being,” Jay S. Zimmerman, chairman and chief executive, said in a message to the firm.
As president of the American Bar Association, he was a fierce advocate of the profession. When Vice President Dan Quayle said in a 1991 speech to the association that there were too many lawyers in the United States, Mr. Curtin “chastised him like an errant schoolboy,” The New York Times reported.
“Anybody who believes a better day dawns when lawyers are eliminated bears the burden of explaining who will take their place, and who will protect the poor, the injured, the victims of negligence, the victims of racial discrimination, and the victims of racial violence,” Mr. Curtin said as Quayle stood nearby.
In his roles as a national leader and as president of the Boston Bar Association, which in 2010 gave him its first lifetime achievement award, Mr. Curtin worked to bring more women into the profession and to make it more racially diverse.
“He was the most establishment of lawyers,” said Margaret H. Marshall, former chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court. “Not only was a Triple Eagle and a partner in a very blue chip law firm, but he was an establishment part of that establishment. And yet he was most inclusive. He reached out to women and minority lawyers, every new lawyer, to include everyone in one of his great passions, which was the pursuit of justice.”
When Marshall arrived from South Africa and “was a young lawyer in Boston knowing nobody, Jack was one of the very first persons who led me through the Boston law and welcomed me, and not everybody did,” she said. “I knew him when I was an outsider and when I was, so to speak, an insider.”
In addition to his wife and two sons, Mr. Curtin leaves two daughters, Catherine Dyroff of Duxbury and Ann Carroll of Sherborn; another son, Dan of Wellesley; two sisters, Maryal Redmond of North Kingstown, R.I.; Bernadette Noviasky of Naples, Maine; a brother, Gerard of Norton; and 13 grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Chestnut Hill. Burial will be in Woodlawn Cemetery in Wellesley.
For Mr. Curtin, “the pursuit of justice was his life journey,” Marshall said, “and he knew for whom he was fighting the war, and it was on behalf of the downtrodden, the marginalized, the people who were not given voice as often as they should be. He was an advocate, but he didn’t do it in a bombastic way, he did it in a quiet, inclusive way.”
That inclusiveness, she said, also was apparent in the way Mr. Curtin and his wife welcomed everyone into their lives, their family, their causes.
“They drew people in, even as people were drawn to them,” Marshall said. “Whatever circle they were in, the circle kept expanding and expanding, so there must be millions of people who consider themselves close to Jack and Mary.