With next week’s election, the “father figure” of the Edgartown courthouse family will end his 42-year reign as the respected clerk of Dukes County Superior Court.
Joseph Sollitto Jr. is retiring after serving seven terms as only the seventh clerk in the history of the court. He was elected seven times, most of them unopposed. On Tuesday afternoon, family, lawyers, judges, police chiefs, county sheriff employees, and town leaders from across the Island crowded into the courtroom for a surprise sendoff. Retired clerk magistrate Thomas Teller, whom Sollitto described as a mentor, was also in the audience.
“I have never met a better clerk of courts than Joe Sollitto,” said Judge Cornelius Moriarty, who served as a master of ceremonies for the courtroom event organized by the Dukes County Bar Association.
Moriarty read letters of appreciation from Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gantz, Superior Court Chief Justice Judith Fabricant, and Barnstable County Judge Robert Rufo — all of whom praised Sollitto for his dedicated service to the court.
There were official citations from the House of Representatives and Gov. Charlie Baker, as well.
But it was the personal tributes that stood out, admiration filling the courtroom for the man who always dresses in a signature bow tie and monogrammed shirts.
Ronald Rappaport, an attorney and friend, joked that Sollitto had lobbied to have “us” added to his “JES” monogram, “but that was overruled by a higher authority.”
Sollitto arrived every morning by 6 am (though that is unverified, Rappaport joked) and left at the close of court business.
“To serve 42 years in public life without a scandal is almost unheard-of,” Rappaport said. He called Sollitto an exemplary public servant.
“We’ll miss your bow tie. We’ll miss your smile. We’ll miss your quiet confidence,” Rappaport said. “You have been an ambassador of the court system for the public on Martha’s Vineyard. You’ve made a real difference.”
The crowded courtroom stood several times to applaud Sollitto, who also served as a U.S. Marine, an Oak Bluffs police officer, and an Oak Bluffs selectman.
“I’ve been very privileged,” Sollitto said, at times choking back tears as talked about the people who helped along the way and weren’t present for his retirement. “I’ve held elected office for 45 years.”
It was his devotion to family, several speakers said, that translated into how Sollitto handled the superior court clerk’s office. He treated everyone with dignity and respect, Edgartown District Court clerk magistrate Liza Williamson said.
“This courthouse is a family …” Williamson said. “Joe has been the father of this courthouse.” His treatment of people trickled down throughout the courthouse, she said. “He has made everyone a better person.”
Sollitto has ties to the Williamson family. He thanked former Oak Bluffs Chief Peter Williamson for giving him his start as a police officer. The chief’s wife, Judy, and son, Timothy, now a lieutenant in Oak Bluffs, were among those in the audience.
Liza Williamson said Sollitto would often introduce her to a new superior court judge by saying, “You know you’re getting old when you used to babysit the clerk magistrate’s husband.”
Jeff Norton, who gave Sollitto a start in his law firm, and who has had breakfast with Sollitto every Saturday morning for 40 years, said the next clerk of courts would have “huge shoes to fill.”
Sollitto’s sense of history was also heralded, with several speakers pointing out that he could name every person whose portraits hang on the courthouse walls. Rappaport told a tale of how he was bailed out by Sollitto’s knowledge at a dinner party that included Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Breyer wanted to know why it’s called the “County of Dukes County.” Rappaport was stumped, and called his friend Sollitto from the kitchen of then-SJC Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s house.
“I dial Joe up and caller ID must have come up, because he says, ‘Oh, Madame Chief Justice, how nice to hear from you.’” Rappaport recalled. “I said, ‘Joe, it’s only me, but quick I need the answer, why is it the County of Dukes County?’”
Without missing a beat, Sollitto told him it traced back to a time when Martha’s Vineyard and Dukes County were part of New York.
Martin Tomassian Jr., who is the president of the Dukes County Bar Association, said he and Sollitto were at law school at the same time, until Tomassian got drafted. When Tomassian arrived on the Island to practice law, he was surprised to find Sollitto in the courthouse.
“What are you doing here, Joe?” Tomassian recalled saying. “‘I work here,’” Sollitto told him.
The ceremony opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, a Dukes County Sheriff’s Department honor guard presenting the colors. The Rev. Michael Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Church, offered a blessing.
“May your retirement be filled with peace and joy,” he said.
Judge Moriarty noted that Sollitto was known for being budget-conscious. An attorney was using a chalkboard during a trial, and Moriarty asked the clerk if there was a pointer for the man to use, to spare his black suit from chalk dust. Sollitto said no. When Moriarty asked why, Sollitto said, “It wasn’t in the budget.”
A few moments later, Sollitto sent a court officer out to retrieve a broken flag. The material was removed from the stick, Sollitto wiped off the dirt and handed it to the attorney.
“That’ll get the job done,” Moriarty recalled Sollitto saying to the attorney.
Moriarty asked Sollitto to consider buying a pointer. “It’s five years later, not only is there no pointer, but we have the old one,” Moriarty said holding the stick over his head as the courtroom erupted in laughter. “And the dirt’s still on it.”
Judge Moriarty summed up Sollitto’s 42-year tenure, saying he always understood the need to put the public at ease and treat everyone, no matter their race, equally. “It never matters who you are, Joe Sollitto treats everyone, without exception, with the utmost dignity, courtesy, and respect,” he said. “And never, even with the most difficult litigant, is he ever rude or dismissive.”
Rappaport had this message for Sollitto’s wife, Kathy. “Thank you for taking care of Joe all these years, but unlike the rest of us, our job is over and yours is just beginning.”