Wednesday, March 07, 2018

John Edward Dowling: 
A Jewel of A Jurist
Eddie Dowling was one of Ridgefield’s most intelligent, colorful and well-liked attorneys. He was also a war hero.
“He’s the sweetest guy around,” said Superior Court Judge Patricia Geen at a 1985 dinner in his honor. He’s a “classic Irishman, a rare jewel,” added Judge Howard J. Moraghan.
Famed for his sharp, wry wit, Dowling often regaled people with tales from his long career. Some described his FBI days, such as the time, in a Midwestern cornfield, he had his gun drawn as he stalked a criminal who turned out to be a scarecrow. Some told of unusual legal cases, such as the Bethel woman who left her sizable estate to a name she discovered using a Ouija board. And many were about life in Ridgefield, such as the time a prominent clergyman, who had been complaining for weeks about a pothole at a local gas station, grabbed a pole and went “fishing” in it to emphasize his point.
While Dowling loved to talk, he usually said little when it came to the two Purple Hearts he earned in World War II.
John Edward Dowling was born in 1922 in a High Ridge house behind St. Mary's Church, where his father was the sexton for many years.
As a boy, he earned money for the family delivering newspapers. One of his customers was Judge Joseph H. Donnelly, then the only lawyer practicing in town. At a dinner honoring Dowling many years later, Donnelly observed that then-heavier Dowling had been a “skinny” kid back then. Dowling replied: “Donnelly didn’t tip too much either.”
Dowling graduated in 1939 from Ridgefield High School where the six-foot-four inch student played basketball. He was an usher at the old Ridgefield Playhouse movie theater, clerked at a store, and drove a school bus to earn money while attending Danbury State Teachers College.
In 1942, he joined the U.S. Army and fought with the infantry in the invasion of Europe. Around Christmas 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, he rescued two injured comrades. 
Usually quiet about his war years, Dowling would say little about the event, describing it tersely: “We were under attack and these fellows got wounded and I went out and got them out, back to a medic. It was under fire, but I got away with it.”
Private Dowling was wounded twice in the war, the more serious injury occurring in April 1945 during the invasion of Germany. “The war was rapidly ending,” he said in a 2002 interview. “We were liberating towns. They were happy to see us and not the Russians.”
He was a member of an infantry anti-tank unit that set up a 57-mm gun on a road near the town of Unter-Gruppenbach. An approaching German tank blew up the gun. Dowling and two other men were hit, and a fourth man was killed. Injured seriously enough to have been later given the Last Rites, Dowling nonetheless dragged the two injured comrades to a ditch alongside the road. All three hid there wounded as the German tank drove by (it was knocked out down the road). Dowling was sent to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., to recover, and was discharged from the Army in July.
Though he earned the Soldiers Medal, two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and other commendations, Dowling rarely talked of his war exploits and did not even receive his medals until 40 years after the war — and then, only because his son, Michael, researched and requested them from the Army.
One time when he was asked about his war record, he replied, “You want a war record? Go see Dom Bedini. He jumped at D-Day.”
As for himself, “I was in the service — period.”
Nonetheless, late in life, when efforts were being made by the Ridgefield Historical Society to record the experiences of Ridgefield soldiers in World War II, Dowling allowed Press editor Macklin Reid to interview him on his service. He spoke little of the battle exploits, however, and much of the lighter incidents in the war.
"We never did hit a tank," he admitted with a gleam in his eye. "My first shot with the anti-tank gun, I missed the tank and hit a house and it went through the basement. And you know what came out? Four hundred chickens! So after that, everyone in my unit would say, 'Hit another house!' They liked dead chicken meat.”
After his discharge, Dowling earned a law degree from Fordham University, and spent three years as an FBI agent in Illinois and Texas. 
He returned to town in 1951 and accomplished the then-incredible: As a Democrat he was elected judge of probate in this largely Republican town, defeating a well-known Republican attorney, Michael Bruno. The last Democrat to hold that office had been in 1879, and none has held it since.
“The response of townspeople to his candidacy must warm this young man’s heart and give him renewed inspiration to pursue his career with vigor and enthusiasm,” a Press editorial commented at the time. “During his school years here, Eddie Dowling worked hard. He clerked in a grocery store to earn money to continue his education in teachers college and later law school. Here is a local boy who has made good, a youth who, by diligent application to a program of study and work, has demonstrated that Ridgefield boys and girls need not necessarily go far afield to make their way in life.” (The editorial was written by Karl S. Nash, a native son who went off to Harvard and returned to town to run its newspaper.)
Judge Dowling continued to practice law here for most of the next half-century. Many young attorneys began their careers working in his office, including Joseph Egan, the current (2016) probate judge, Romeo Petroni and Sue Reynolds, both of whom later became Superior Court judges, George M. Cohan, and Jane Belote.
At his funeral Judge Egan called Dowling “one of the best known and beloved people in Ridgefield.” Describing him as a “townie in the true sense of the word,” he said “Ed was great to and for the town of Ridgefield.”
“His life had its ups and downs,” he added. “He handled them all with class and dignity.”
Jane Belote said, "More than any other attorney I have ever known, John Dowling truly loved the law and enjoyed being a lawyer. As a summer intern in his office I discovered that, despite the roguish sense of humor and abundant Irish charm, he brought to his practice not only a keen analytic mind but also understanding, concern and tolerance for his often colorful clients.
“Unusual things happened regularly in John Edward's life,” Attorney Belote added. “Every day was an opportunity for adventure.”
Pam Allen, who had been his legal secretary on and off for more than 30 years, said “he was a great boss. He was a legend. There won’t be another like him, ever.” 
Many remembered him also as a caring man, who often used his legal skills to assist people in need. “He’s helped Ridgefield a lot,” The Press once said in an editorial. “He’s one of the nicest guys in town, and if somebody needs a lawyer and can’t afford to pay, he’s the one most apt to help.”
Dowling also served the community as a member of the Board of Finance in the 1960s and the Veterans Park School Building Committee in the 1950s. He was appointed town attorney, both in the 1950s and in the late 1960s, and was frequently a moderator of town meetings. He was a member of the Ridgefield Housing Authority for several years while living at Ballard Green. From 1959 to 1961, he was chief prosecutor in the Danbury Circuit Court, now the Superior Court, and was for a while president of the Danbury Bar Association. He was one of the founders and a director of the Village Bank and Trust Company.
He was a longtime member of the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department, and had served as a trustee for many years. At one point, he acquired an antique Seagraves fire engine, which he outfitted with church pews and used to haul fans to football games at Immaculate High School in Danbury. He later gave the truck to the Volunteer Fire Department, which used it for parts in restoring and maintaining its 1931 Seagraves, which is used in parades.
He had been active at St. Mary’s Church where, in 1962, he chaired the committee that helped persuade voters to provide school bus transportation to St. Mary’s School in the days before state law required public busing of private school children.
In 2002, the Ridgefield Old Timers honored him at its annual awards banquet. In 2001, he was a grand marshal of the Memorial Day Parade.
He enjoyed golf, and played frequently with other leaders of the business and professional community. He was a member of the Silver Spring Country Club for many years.
Dowling’s wife, the former Regina Marie Malkiewicz, died in 1972. The couple met when he was an FBI agent in Chicago and they had eight children. Eddie Dowling died in 2004 at the age of 82.
When he was in his 70s, Judge Dowling lived at Ballard Green, the senior citizen complex that he called “Geritol Gardens” and where he was still practicing law. One of the few single men living there, he used to quip, “I never lock my door because there are 50 women watching it at all times.” 

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