There have been, and will be, hundreds of good things said about Sam Zoll, who died this week of cancer at 76 – all of them true and all of them deserved.
But I’m going to pile on anyway.
Zoll, for 28 years the chief justice of the Massachusetts District Courts and also a former Salem city councilor, state rep and mayor, did not just talk about good government. He lived it – personified it.
The high-profile story about him helping U.S. Senator Scott Brown turn his life around when he was a 12-year-old shoplifter is inspiring, but to those who knew Judge Zoll, it is not the least surprising. It was typical. He did things like that thousands of times for people who never became famous, but who more often than not were turned from being a malignancy in society to an asset.
Zoll had plenty of other stellar qualities. He did not come from privilege – he delivered papers for 15 years to help his family survive the Depression – but he took what opportunities were available and earned his success.
His ethics were impeccable – he would not countenance anything that had even a whiff of conflict of interest. He was a hard worker – it is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that if local and state governments were filled with Sam Zolls, twice as much would get done at half the cost. He was a humble authority figure – no entourage of coatholders and hangers-on. When he was on his bike, he was just like everybody else.
He was one of the happiest people I ever knew – I remember seeing him at the end of a day of biking the Pan Mass challenge. Just about everybody was exhausted and grumpy. The judge had an ecstatic smile.
But to me, his greatest gift was to see the best in others, so they would see the potential in themselves. That is what he did with me as a green reporter in Salem. Most mayors or councilors would have you “checked out” before they would really talk to you. Most judges wouldn’t talk to you at all. Zoll, from Day One, treated me with the same respect and openness as the veterans he had been dealing with for years. He made me want to get everything right.
As he did with a juvenile Scott Brown, he made all of us around him better people, not by shaming us but by believing in us. He made us want to do our best.
We should all strive for a legacy like that.
R.I.P., Judge Zoll. You will be greatly missed.