“It’s been a great ride,” says recently retired justice John Savago, speaking of his 32-year term of service with the Gardiner Town Court that just ended effective Jan. 1, 2014. “If it weren’t for my health, I’d still be doing it.”
Savago, who is undergoing treatment for Stage Four cancer, is currently enjoying the balmy climate of Englewood Beach, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. “It’s beautiful here. It’s been in the 80s.” His wife Jean, a Gardiner Town Court clerk who cuts back on her work hours in the wintertime, will shortly be joining him. John fully intends to be back in Ulster County in May as usual to see his three grown children, Kenny, Joni and Traci, and his five grandchildren, who range in age from 12 to 21. All still live in the area.
John Savago, whose father worked at the General Motors plant in Tarrytown, was born in Dobbs Ferry. But when he was in the first grade, the family moved to New Paltz, where his grandparents owned a large farm, growing grapes in the area now known as Cherry Hill. Longtime Ulster County legislator Pete Savago was his uncle, and John’s grandparents ran a boardinghouse on the site where Dunkin’ Donuts now stands.
His parents, Charlie and Mary Savago, built a house for the family on DuBois Road. Young John graduated from New Paltz High School in 1963, and a year later married his high school sweetheart and moved to North Ohioville Road. He joined the New Paltz police force, where he served for ten years before switching to a better-paying career with the United Parcel Service.
But Savago, who moved to Gardiner in 1974, cherished the contacts that he had made at the local courts while he was a police officer, and he developed a friendship with longtime Gardiner justice Sam Stokes. “We used to do a lot of arraignments with him,” he recalls. “He was a super-nice guy. He used to ask me, ‘John, why don’t you run for justice?’ But I wouldn’t run against him.”
When Stokes decided to retire effective 1982, Savago took up the challenge and won the first of many elections, spanning the terms of eight Gardiner town supervisors. “I took a crash course at Albany Law School when I got elected,” notes the veteran justice, who never practiced law prior to taking the bench.
“I miss the guys I used to work with from the State Police, the County Sheriff’s Office, the Plattekill and Shawangunk Town Courts…. I’ve had great public defenders, great district attorneys,” he says. “They’re all very professional, and made my job a lot easier.” He also gives Jean, who was a court clerk for his entire tenure, a great deal of credit for his success. “Judges have an easy job. It’s the clerks that do all the paperwork.”
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a dark side to Savago’s responsibilities. “Gardiner doesn’t get the publicity that bigger towns like New Paltz get. Everybody thinks Gardiner is a quiet little town. But I had three murder cases in my time.”
Most cases that Savago heard were not quite so serious, of course, and some yielded funny reminiscences. “I had this one girl on a speeding ticket; she was clocked at 105 miles per hour on Route 208,” he recalls. “She said to me, ‘My car won’t go 105. My speedometer only reaches 85 miles per hour.’ So I told her, ‘Okay, I find you guilty of doing 85.’ Believe me, I’ve heard every excuse.”
But Savago prefers to remember the more pleasant aspects of a judge’s responsibilities — especially performing wedding ceremonies. “I’ve jumped out of airplanes and married people on the way down,” he says, adding that he once married two rock climbers, taking the long way around to wait at the top of the pitch while the bridal party made a vertical ascent wearing climbing gear. “You wouldn’t catch me climbing up there,” he laughs.
Savago has also traveled abroad to perform a wedding in a castle near the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, and another on the island of St. Croix. “It’s an adventure,” he says, summing up his long judicial career.
What does a judge do for fun in his downtime? In Savago’s case, he nurtures a lifelong passion for collecting vintage automobiles. He still owns a 1957 Chevy, a 1963 Impala SS and a 1970 Chevy convertible. But his pride and joy is a 1955 Pontiac Starchief that has “won a lot of trophies” over the years, including First Place in an all-Pontiac show in Rhode Island. The car is in mint condition, with only about 3,000 miles on it.
“I bought it local, from Moriello Farms. It was originally owned by Michael Moriello,” Savago explains. Moriello, after whom New Paltz’s town pool is named, was the first local farmer to fly a crop-dusting plane, until he lost his life in a tragic crash. “He bought the car in March and got killed in April, 1955,” the retired justice continues. “His brother Joe came up from New York City and took over the farm and closed up everything.”
Joe Moriello’s son Tony and grandsons Joe and Michael eventually inherited the farm and all its contents, and decided to part with the Pontiac that had long been stored in a barn. When he bought it, “It looked like it just came out of a showroom,” according to Savago, and he has driven it very little ever since — mostly to vintage auto shows.
For all his current health issues, John Savago still sounds chipper and upbeat and is looking forward to the future. “They gave me a year to live, but I’m going on Year Two now,” he says. “I’m going to beat this. I think 90 percent of it is in your head, anyway. I’ve got a lot of things to do yet!”