In 1973, three years into working at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Tony Winsor wrote that his job included planning seminars for “store front” lawyers, “training lay persons in court-watching,” and suing the police “for brutality and unlawful search and seizure.”
Allan Rodgers, who hired Mr. Winsor and was then the institute’s executive director, recalled that the state’s court system at the time lacked interpreter services, and that indigent clients had little access to courts due to the cost. Rodgers said that with a blend of ebullience and wit, Mr. Winsor worked tirelessly to better the lot of the poor in Massachusetts, and to improve the court system.
“Tony was really one of a kind,” Rodgers said, recalling Mr. Winsor’s legendary status as someone who, despite a hefty workload, was always willing to speak with clients, public service advocates, and lawyers who called the institute seeking advice.
“While I doubt I’ll retire at Massachusetts Law Reform, I also don’t intend to leave unless something more interesting calls,” Mr. Winsor wrote for a class report in the 1970s. He ended up staying 39 years before retiring in 2009 due to poor health.
Mr. Winsor, who extolled the benefits of working with colleagues who kept a sense of humor, died of Lewy body dementia Nov. 4 in Briarwood Healthcare in Needham. He was 76 and lived in Chestnut Hill.
His wife, Ros, described him as “a foot soldier” who avoided the pitfalls of cynicism.
“He never burned out,” she said. “He worked on issues, worked on them doggedly for years, and he didn’t get deterred by the length of time it took. He kept a focus on things until he did all he could. And it was hard for him to ever stop doing.”
In 1998, for his 40th class report, Mr. Winsor wrote that “standing up on your hind legs and speaking out for doing the thing that is right and fair makes a big difference. Not always right away, but eventually.”
Ernest Winsor, who was known as Tony, grew up in Chestnut Hill. His wife said his concern for social justice was fostered by his parents — Democrats who raised him in an otherwise conservative extended family.
He went to Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated in 1958 from Harvard, where he majored in political science and government. For two years he served in the Army as a lieutenant in the air defense artillery before returning to attend Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1963.
After law school, he worked with the Boston firm Hale and Dorr, writing years later that during “six, increasingly unsatisfying years” he slowly realized “that I would not be happy spending most of my time assisting the rich to gain or preserve their wealth.”
His first marriage ended in divorce. He met Ros Micou at an Americans for Democratic Action meeting in Boston and they married in 1969. “She, as I, loved Bach, tennis, and Democrats — and she could also play Bach,” he wrote in 1983.
When he joined the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute in 1970, the staff was young. With seven years of experience, Rodgers was the most senior attorney. Mr. Winsor brought knowledge of state court procedure that other staff members lacked and was immediately assigned to delve into access-to-justice issues.
One of his best-known efforts was training volunteers to be court watchers and sit through court proceedings, document abuses of procedure and rules, and draft reports. Their work was a necessary first step to help the institute determine what was happening in the courts.
Court watchers “come into a community like Chelsea and they can’t be scared off, whereas the local lawyers dependent on the good will of the court, might be,” Mr. Winsor told The Boston Globe in 1972. Based on the court watchers’ observations, he added, “judges tend to modify their behavior for the better.”
Also in the 1970s, Mr. Winsor drafted first-of-its-kind legislation that provided for an affidavit of indigency. When income criteria were met, the state would be required to cover the costs of low-income litigants, according to Rodgers. The legislation was adopted in 1974.
“I think it’s fair to say it’s still the best statute of its kind in this country,” Rodgers said. “We monitor that. To give you an idea of the significance of this law, the last time I checked . . . I estimated the total benefit annually to poor people from this legislation was $30 million.”
Another of Mr. Winsor’s accomplishments was helping change the Criminal Offender Record Information law, or CORI. The original law was meant to limit access to criminal record information to law enforcement and courts, but over time CORI reports became widely available to others, including employers and residential housing owners.
Working with organizations such as the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and the Boston Workers Alliance, Mr. Winsor and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute helped secure adoption of legislation that brought comprehensive changes, according to Rodgers.
Mr. Winsor also helped form the Babel Coalition, which succeeded in getting interpreters placed in the courts and state medical facilities.
For almost 50 years, Mr. Winsor also served on the board of directors for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, where he founded and cochaired the privacy committee, becoming a national expert on patient privacy rights.
Mr. Winsor was extremely humble about his accomplishments, his wife said.
“I don’t think I’ve known anyone with less of an ego,” she said. “He had such a compassion for people. His heart just went out to them and he wanted to help. He recognized oppression when he saw it.”
Mr. Winsor also “had his own ways of doing things that often made people laugh,” she said. He loved to cook and entertain, including at his annual lawn and sneaker party. He was famous among friends for his Jamaican rum punch, which he called “Mama Tone’s.” All his culinary creations, including hot fudge sauce and salad dressing, carried the Mama Tone’s moniker.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Winsor leaves a son, Ben of Belmont, and a daughter, Alina of Phoenix.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate Mr. Winsor’s life at 1 p.m. Saturday at the First Unitarian Society in Newton.
Since his death, the Institute has received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from people across the state expressing condolences, said executive director Georgia Katsoulomitis. Mr. Winsor may have been “an aggressive and fearless advocate, and a brilliant lawyer,” she said, but what made him unique was that “he was also a genuinely kind person and had a great sense of humor. He took his work very seriously, but not himself. He was just exquisitely human.”