Democrat File Photo | Fred Stabbert
Dorothy and the Honorable Robert C. Williams pose with his portrait unveiling at the Sullivan County Courthouse back in October, 1995.
Former DA, judge continues to inspire after passing
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO December 24, 2013 A Bethel native known far and wide as a fair, humble judge was something far more personal to Dorothy Bertsch Williams.
“Every woman should have a husband like Robert,” Dorothy said three days after she lost the man to whom she’d been married for 61 years.
“He was a wonderful man.”
Dorothy and a sorrowful county laid the Honorable Robert C. Williams to rest yesterday, bidding farewell to one of the county’s most lauded and dedicated public servants.
“I basically learned human nature from him,” recalled one of the judge’s many law clerks, Monticello attorney Marvin Newberg. “He treated people all the same, and that was a very important lesson.”
It promises to be his legacy and is one of the reasons his name is now part of the official title of Sullivan County Family Court.
Born to a family of little means in 1928, Bob (as he was known to his many friends) grew up in a county still full of one-room schoolhouses and small farms.
Thanks to an observant teacher at the West Bethel School, his intelligence and aptitude were quickly noted, allowing him to skip third and fifth grades “lest he become bored,” according to a Sullivan County Historical Society biography.
At 16, he graduated from the newly-formed Jeffersonville Central School and earned a debating scholarship to Bates College in Maine. But a year later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in Korea for a year before being discharged.
He returned three years later as a master sergeant during the Korean War. He recalled that while he safely navigated the minefields his platoon was tasked with clearing, he couldn’t avoid catching malaria or “frozen feet.”
In 1952, he married Dorothy, a native of nearby Cochecton, and then graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1955, starting his practice with Levine and Williams in Monticello.
Just two years later, friend and mentor Ben Newberg then the county’s district attorney appointed him as an assistant DA, which eventually led to Bob landing the DA position in 1962, where he served until 1968.
Subsequently, he became Sullivan County’s very first Family Court judge, setting a standard that remains to this day.
“He was the first judge I ever appeared before,” retired NYS Appellate Court Judge Anthony Kane recalled of those early Family Court days. “He was kind to young lawyers ... but he didn’t shrink from chastising them when their egos got a little large.”
It was a key difference between “Bob” of Monticello and “Judge Williams” of the court.
“He was so well-known for his sense of humor,” acknowledged another one of his cherished clerks, Helene Indelicato. “But when he was in the courtroom, he was all business.”
Common to both personas was his belief in fairness, compassion and making the right choices.
“He had this common-sense approach he always brought to the table,” Helene explained. “The biggest thing he liked was when people said he was fair and I think he was.”
Even when it cost him.
Judge Kane remembered in 1994 when Bob who by then had been serving 20 years as a NYS Supreme Court justice issued the decision which allowed gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano to run for office.
“He [Golisano] would surely take votes away from Governor [George] Pataki,” Kane explained. “But he called the case as he saw it he always did.”
As a result, Bob lost any chance to be appointed to the state’s Appellate Court, and he retired the next year.
But his reputation stood undiminished, and subsequent years of arbitrating disputes and filling in on the bench for civil trials ensured another generation of residents and lawyers would come to know and respect him.
“He was a master at settling things [before they went to trial],” said Newberg, who remained close with the Williamses long after he left Bob’s employ.
The couple bought a place in Florida for the winter, but every spring, you could count on him returning to Sullivan County.
“It’s where his heart was,” affirmed Kane.
That, and his wife and family.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Dorothy’s sister, Katherine Bossert. “I tell you, he was good to everybody.”
That includes the Stabbert family, with whom the Williamses shared an especially close and fond relationship.
“My memories of Judge Williams go back to the days when I caddied for ‘The Judge’ and his partner, Bruce Silverman, as they played my dad, Fred Stabbert Jr., and Don Molusky at Tennanah Lake Golf Course in the early ‘70s," Fred Stabbert III, Sullivan County Democrat publisher, said. “I was just a teenager but I remember the matches as incredibly competitive and so much fun to be a part of.
“Those four never stopped needling each other, and I still repeat stories from their matches when I play up at Tennanah,” he said.
“Also, my mother Shirley was about the same age as the judge, and they both attended Jeff High School,” Stabbert added. “And they were on the debate team together.
“I can still hear Judge Williams teasing my mom: ‘Now Shirley, you know who the best debater was.’”
Bob was a favored speaker at many awards dinners, graduations and other public gatherings because of that good-natured, good-humored approach to life.
It also earned him many awards and accolades the renaming of Family Court in his honor, the 1996 History Maker Award from the Sullivan County Historical Society and the NYS Trial Lawyers Association’s Felix J. Aulisi Award for “consistent and diligent dedication to the administration of justice.”
“People knew he would do the right thing,” his widow, Dorothy, lovingly recalled. “He always had that principle: to do what was right.”