June 23, 2010 10:36 Age: 4 yrs

CLOSING: Remembering The Sicilian Judge

By: Timothy L. Hussey

Anthony Alaimo 48L, senior U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Georgia, died Dec. 30. He was 89.

His parents, Salvatore and Santa, immigrated to the United States in hope of providing a better life for their children.

Growing up in Jamestown, Ohio, Alaimo shined shoes outside the town barbershop. He watched the attorneys in the law office across the street and imagined what that life would be like.

This dream of the law shaped his life.

The day after Pearl Harbor, Alaimo joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. The Nazis shot down his B-26 bomber over occupied Holland. He crashed into the North Sea and was captured. He later was held in Stalag Luft III.

“I cannot describe the terrible feeling of claustrophobia that engulfed me when the gates of the camp closed behind me,” he says in The Sicilian Judge, by Vincent Coppola. “Loss of liberty is one of the most serious injuries that can be inflicted on an individual… I didn’t appreciate freedom’s true import until it was taken away.”

Alaimo participated in many escape attempts, including The Great Escape, which later became a movie. After being transferred to yet another prison camp and nearly being shot in another botched escape attempt, Alaimo traded places with a Jewish soldier on work detail and slipped away to France, then Italy and Switzerland, before reaching the United States.

Two weeks after he returned, the war ended.

He applied to Yale Law School, remembering when a fellow prisoner tutored eight or nine men from a law book at Stalag Luft III. Those legal discussions were the one bright spot in an otherwise miserable existence.

His ties to the Republican Party, a rarity in the then deeply Democratic South, lead to his 1971 nomination as U.S. district judge by President Nixon.

Yale turned him down. At the suggestion of a friend, he visited Emory University where he asked about being admitted one week before classes began. Emory accepted him on the spot.
After graduating, he struggled to find a job in Atlanta. His Italian heritage—as well as being a Yankee—turned most people off. They didn’t know what to make of him.

Eventually, he found a job with flamboyant Atlanta attorney Reuben A. Garland working for $35 a week. Alaimo resigned in 1951 to return to Ohio to work on his father-in-law’s farm. Nearly two years later, Garland wooed Alaimo back to Atlanta with a partnership.

After moving to Brunswick, Ga., Alaimo built a strong practice. His ties to the Republican Party, a rarity in the then deeply Democratic South, lead to his 1971 nomination as U.S. district judge by President Nixon.

He was assigned Guthrie v. Evans, a case involving prisoner complaints from the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville. Guthrie and 50 other African American inmates complained about the prison’s cruel and inhumane conditions. Harkening to his days as a pow, Alaimo’s visit to the prison made a tremendous impression.

“As I walked along the cellblocks, I saw men who should have been in the insane asylum in Milledgeville. Men lying on the floor in their cells covered in feces…. The guards used long poles to shove the food to them. … I could not look at this and consider myself a human being and not do something about it,” he says in The Sicilian Judge.

Alaimo spent the next 25 years working to reverse the prison’s poor living conditions. His reforms cost an estimated $400 million and led to him being both derided and then lauded for as a visionary in prison reform.

Alaimo’s wife of 62 years, Jeanne, died in January 2009. He is survived by his son, Phillip, of Savannah, Ga., his sister, Josephine Curry of Cincinnati, four granddaughters, one grandson, one great-grandson and many nieces and nephews.

The Sicilian Judge

Learn more about Judge Anthony Alaimo in The Sicilian Judge: Anthony Alaimo, An American Hero by Vincent Coppola (2009).

 

 

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