John “Jack” Rowley, a towering figure in St. Bernard Parish politics whose career spanned more than half a century, died at his home Wednesday, one day after the election to choose his successor as district attorney.
He was 83.
Rowley had suffered heart problems for the past several months, said Assistant District Attorney Glenn Diaz, who had worked in Rowley’s office since 1979, when St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes split into separate judicial districts. “He was very compassionate,” Diaz said Thursday. “One of the smartest people I ever knew.”
Rowley graduated from LSU in 1953 and Tulane University Law School in 1956.
He lost only one election, his first: a 1960 runoff race against the incumbent sheriff. Two years later, Rowley won the post, serving until 1978, when he was elected the first district attorney of the newly created 34th Judicial District Court.
In that time, Rowley became such a force in parish politics that candidates for office vied for a spot on the “Rowley ticket.”
“I always heard, ‘If you ever want to run for public office, the first guy you should see is Jack Rowley,’ ” St. Bernard Sheriff James Pohlmann said.
Rowley’s father, Celestine “Dutch” Rowley, had served as parish sheriff before him.
Rowley did not qualify to run for re-election in August, ending his 35-year run as St. Bernard’s top prosecutor. He had begun having heart trouble earlier this year, Diaz said, adding that he collapsed in the office on a few occasions in the spring.
On Tuesday, former state judge Perry Nicosia won a three-way race to succeed Rowley, finishing ahead of Diaz and Michael Gorbaty, who also had worked as one of Rowley’s assistant prosecutors.
Throughout the years, Rowley preferred to oversee his assistant prosecutors rather than handle cases himself. He boasted that his office accepted for prosecution nearly every case referred to it by the Sheriff’s Office and justices of the peace. At times, though, he drew criticism for bringing so few of them to trial.
Only four criminal jury trials have been held in St. Bernard since early 2010, including one this year that ended in a hung jury and a rape case in which an appeals court later tossed out the conviction after finding that the judge botched the jury instructions.
In turn, some critics charged that Rowley was too quick to plea-bargain with defendants, largely because he accepted cases without a hard look at their merits and thus ended up with some weak ones. His supporters contended that at least the deals typically ensured some punishment, whereas a jury trial would leave the outcome to chance.
“I don’t say that he was a saint, because none of us are, but I think that he really was a model public official,” St. Bernard Parish official historian Bill Hyland said Thursday. “He was always a person keenly aware of the power he wielded and very careful not to hurt people with that power, while nevertheless doing what he had to do to enforce the law.”
The lack of trials was a theme that Nicosia repeatedly hit in the recent campaign and one that Rowley’s occasional challengers raised over the years.
But some who knew Rowley recalled him as a fair, caring person who believed in giving people a second chance.
“I think he understood that if he can help you and you deserve a break, I think he would give it to you,” Pohlmann said.
Under Rowley’s watch, Diaz said, the District Attorney’s Office “looked at people that came before us as people, not as statistics.”
“We prosecuted those that needed it, and if some people needed a break or made a mistake, we would see that they had a chance to make it right and become productive,” he said. “That was a hallmark of what I think we did.”
Diaz also credited Rowley with remaining at the Chalmette courthouse when most of St. Bernard was inundated by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters in 2005.
In his spare time, Rowley enjoyed visiting friends and traveling, particularly to France, where he’d been several times, those who knew him said.
Hyland credited Rowley’s tenure as the longest-serving official in St. Bernard’s history as “a real testament to the respect and the confidence that people had in Mr. Rowley and in his judgment.”
Rowley tightly guarded his privacy and rarely spoke to reporters.
“He shied away from making public speeches,” Hyland said, “but anyone who had lived here for any amount of time knew him, and he was very much a part of the community, not because he participated in public events but rather because he lived and breathed his job.”
Rowley is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and a son, Jack.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.