Lawrence Cullen, a Court of Claims judge whose deep empathy for clients and litigants stemmed from his own experience as a 13-year-old orphan and a shell-shocked veteran of the Vietnam War, died on Nov. 25, just weeks after winning election as a Supreme Court justice. He was 64.
Colleagues described Cullen as a big-hearted, compassionate man who largely handled guardianship and conservatorship work as a practicing attorney in Queens before he joined the judiciary in 2005 with an interim appointment to Supreme Court by Governor George Pataki.
The following year, the Republican Pataki appointed Democrat Cullen to the Court of Claims, but he spent virtually his entire judicial career as an acting Supreme Court justice in Queens. He was elected earlier this month in a contested race to a 14-year Supreme Court term.
“He was a great character, the most wonderful, wonderful person,” said Queens Supreme Court Justice Rudolph Greco Jr., who was sworn in by Cullen. “What made him so special were his personal qualities, his integrity, his loyalty, his kindness. There is nobody he wouldn’t help. He was the guardianship judge and it was a perfect fit for him because he was unfailing in his vigilance to take care of people who were susceptible to harm.”
Greco said he first encountered Cullen years ago, when both were on a Queens Bar Association committee.
“He was a great story teller and raconteur, with this little twinkle in his eye and a ready laugh,” Greco recalled. “He was a role model for everyone on the bench, just an outstanding guy because of his humanity.”
Greco said Cullen died of myeloma, which he had attributed to his Vietnam exposure to a chemical defoliant, “Agent Orange.”
Queens Surrogate Peter Kelly said that “if you ask anybody in Queens, they will have a Larry Cullen story.”
Kelly’s “Larry Cullen story” involves a guardianship case for a down-and-out man who was entitled to a share of a sizable estate, but couldn’t be found.
Cullen “tracked down this homeless guy, a ward living in a park, and got him into a shelter and a program and straightened him out and the guy wound up with close to a half million dollars,” Kelly said. “I don’t know how he found him, but he tracked him down to a park somewhere in Manhattan. That is just the type of guy Larry was. He did that sort of thing a lot.”
Kelly said Cullen was orphaned at the age of 13, joined the Marine Corps at 17 and struggled afterward with the trauma he endured during two tours in Vietnam.
“He never forgot that,” Kelly said. “He related to anyone who had any difficulties or problems and was always willing to help. He went through a pretty tough stage [after the war] and when he got himself straightened out he put himself through college and law school. He was always interested in helping people who were in an unfortunate situation or facing a great difficulty.”
Cullen, a graduate of City University of New York Law School, was honored for his military service with the Purple Heart, Combat Active, National Defense and Vietnam Service ribbons and received the Navy Presidential Unit Citation, according to an obituary obtained from his chambers.
Cullen had been a past chairman of the board of directors of the Catholic Lawyers Guild and remained active in the group.
He is survived by his wife, Malgorzata and two children.
Visiting hours are today and Wednesday from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at the Hillebrand Funeral Homes, 63-17 Woodhaven Boulevard, Rego Park.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:45 a.m. on Nov. 29 at St. Andrew Avellino Roman Catholic Church, 35-60 158st Street, Flushing.