In 23 years on the bench in Boston Juvenile Court, Judge John Joseph Craven Jr. saw scores of troubled families and children. In one case, he ordered a child taken away from a drug-addicted mother and counseled her to get well. Though she never conquered addiction, she sent the judge a large portrait of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
“She never blamed my father for taking her son away, but came to visit my father in court to hear him tell her that she could turn her life around,’’ said Judge Craven’s daughter, Katherine.
Judge Craven, who had been an assistant attorney general and a clerk of the Boston Municipal Court and served on the Boston School Committee in the early 1970s, died Nov. 22 in Epoch Senior Healthcare of Chestnut Hill of complications of Lewy body dementia. He was 76 and had lived in West Roxbury.
“I found him to be one of the dearest, kindest, most compassionate people I’ve ever crossed paths with,’’ said Chief Justice Roderick Ireland of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who worked with him for 13 years. “He was a hard-working guy, a decent man, a great friend, and a wonderful colleague. He lifted everybody up.’’
Born in Roxbury in 1935, Judge Craven could recall listening to John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, John “Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald, sing “Sweet Adeline’’ at the piano in the Parker House when Boston’s Irish Americans made their way up the ladder of success through the voting booth.
Both of Judge Craven’s parents held office. His father, John Sr., was a state representative and his mother, Katherine, had 11 children before she became, in 1963, the first woman ever elected to the Boston City Council on a citywide vote. Judge Craven was their third child and their first son.
A baseball fan from a young age, he could recall going to Fenway Park with his father for the 1946 All Star Game and seeing Ted Williams hit the only home run ever hit off of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Rip Sewell’s famously slow “eephus pitch,’’ his family said.
He graduated from Roxbury Latin School in 1952 and from Harvard College in 1956.
Judge Craven cleaned trolley cars at night to help pay for his legal education at what is now the New England School of Law, from which he graduated in 1962. He also served in the US Army.
“He really made my parents proud,’’ said his sister, Sheila Middleton of Milton. “He just wanted to learn. He was a great student, and he always was involved, always learning, always asking people what did they think. He was a great student of all of these long-gone politicos.’’
His favorite date on the calendar was Election Day, his family said, though he lost bids for lieutenant governor, Suffolk County sheriff, Boston City Council, and state Senate over the years. He was elected to the governor’s eight-member Executive Council in 1966.
As Judge Craven lobbied for appointment as clerk of the Boston Municipal Court, some political columnists nicknamed him Doughnuts Craven for his habit of visiting the Dover home of Francis W. Sargent, then the governor, with a dozen fresh doughnuts on Sundays. Sargent appointed him Municipal Court clerk in 1973.
“He accomplished his goal by literally waylaying the governor every day and begging for a job,’’ Globe columnist David Farrell wrote that year.
Governor Edward J. King appointed him to the Juvenile Court bench in 1982.
“My baby clothes have many pin holes from where a button for a particular candidate once adorned the dress,’’ his daughter, Katherine, who is executive director of the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, said in a eulogy at her father’s service late last month.
“My father cared deeply about Boston and making it a better place, particularly through politics,’’ she said.
He never went anywhere without donning a shirt and tie. One of his familiar bits of advice to his children and grandchildren was: “You’ve got to look good, talk good, and smell good, and only then will people give you some credit for having some brains.’’
Judge Craven, who retired in 2005, enjoyed joking and telling stories about all the politicos he had known, friends said. He met 17 Massachusetts governors in his lifetime.
“He taught me quite a bit about politics, but the thing that impressed me was what a decent human being he was,’’ Ireland said.
From the bench, he often would tell juvenile defendants they needed to get an education and should master math and English.
His rulings were sometimes controversial. In 1992, he took a boy out of foster care and sent him to live with his father, who had already abused him and lost custody to the state Department of Social Services. Judge Craven cited the recommendation of a court-appointed investigator as the basis for his decision to return the child to his father. “The bottom-line goal is to try and unify the family,’’ Judge Craven said.
He was married 41 years to the former Patricia McCarthy. They met when he was doing pro bono legal work and handled the probate work for the estate of one of her relatives, according to his family. They had three children.
Judge Craven was deeply devoted to his daughter Patricia Mary, who was born with Down syndrome. He and his wife resisted doctors’ advice in 1976 to place her in an institution, said Katherine.
At family parties, Judge Craven could be found laughing and joking with Patty and helping her eat dinner. “She was the light of his life,’’ his sister said. “They went every place together.’’
Deeply religious, Judge Craven liked to listen to radio broadcasts of the Rev. Joseph E. Manton from Roxbury’s Mission Church, formally known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. At his home, his frequent kisses on statues and pictures of the Blessed Mother left marks, according to his family. “His first instinct was to trust God in all things,’’ Katherine said.
In addition to his wife, daughters, and sister, Judge Craven leaves a son, John R. of West Roxbury; four other sisters, Patricia Ross of Dedham, Maureen Slade of Hyde Park, Kathleen Passanisi of Quincy, Barbara Broderick of Quincy; two brothers, Brendan of Quincy and Timothy of Dedham; and six grandchildren.
A funeral Mass was said at St. Theresa of Avila Church in West Roxbury. Burial was in Mount Benedict Cemetery in West Roxbury.