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Brooklyn Law School professor Joseph Crea dies at 104

August 8, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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Brooklyn Law School lost an icon this month when professor emeritus Joseph Crea died on Friday, Aug. 2 at the age of 104. Crea was well known in the Brooklyn legal community as a professor passionate about his students and an advocate for strong legal education.

“News of the death of 104-years-young Joe Crea hit hard because he had lured us into thinking he would just keep going and always be there,” said former Brooklyn Law School Dean Nicholas Allard. “In fact, he will never leave us because his gigantic imprint on Brooklyn Law School is indelible.”

Crea, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in the Lower East Side and raised in Brooklyn. He taught at BLS for more than 60 years and only retired in 2014 when he was 99 years old.

Joseph Crea sits behind his 100th birthday cake with Dean Nicholas Allard (center) and Stuart Subotnick, chairperson of the board at BLS, behind him at the BLS Icons Gala that took place on Ellis Island in 2015.
Eagle file photos by Rob Abruzzese

“His life was nothing short of extraordinary, and his impact on the law school will endure for generations to come,” said Stuart Subotnick, chairperson of the board at BLS. “He was a cherished teacher, colleague and friend. He inspired thousands of our graduates, who learned from him about both the law and life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Professor Crea’s family and friends, as the entire Brooklyn Law School community mourns his passing.”

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Crea’s journey into the legal community is the stuff of legend. He used to deliver bread in Flatbush in the 1930s and one day he found a stack of soaking wet legal books. He took those books home, dried them out and read them. Afterward, he decided to go to law school.

Crea graduated high school early, then went to Brooklyn College at night before he went to work at the Selective Service agency prior to the start of World War II. He later became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

BLS Dean Nick Allard and chairperson of the board Stuart Subotnick talk about Crea’s iconic career before presenting him with a cake on his 100th birthday.

In 1944, Crea applied to law school and was rejected because he couldn’t attend college full time. He later convinced Dean Jerome Prince to admit him anyway based on his strong work ethic.

As a professor at BLS, Crea became known for his expertise in criminal law and was known for his colorful catchphrases that included, “Never drop your briefcase and run.” He was also known for helping to modernize the curriculum at the school. He fought for better salaries for professors and raised standards which helped the school’s reputation. Dean Joan Wexler called him a “shadow dean” for all he did for the school.

“There has been no more enthusiastic supporter of Brooklyn Law School, and quite possibly no single person who has shaped its history more than Professor Joseph Crea,” said the current Dean Michael Cahill. “He was an icon, admired and beloved in equal measure by his students and colleagues, touching countless lives across the entire span of his own life. Joe’s intellect, energy, courage, and selflessness will never be replicated or forgotten.”

Flashlights were given to everyone in attendance at the BLS Icons Gala so that everyone could raise them at the same time in a tribute to Joseph Crea on his 100th birthday.

Crea’s family immigrated from Italy and initially found life so tough in the U.S. that they went back to Italy. However, due to the political turmoil and poverty in that country, they came back to the U.S. for a second attempt at the American Dream.

When Crea was young, his mother became ill and the family had to scrape together $25 so she could see a doctor, whose name was Cohen, who diagnosed her with diabetes and prescribed insulin for her. Later in life, she became ill again and Crea called every “Cohen” in the phone book, trying to find the same doctor to help her again.

“Joe’s dad, desperate, told his son, now a young man and an Army vet, to find the Jewish doctor who had saved her before,” said Allard, who recalled the story for the Brooklyn Eagle. “‘How do I reach him?’ Joe asked. His dad said, ‘The doctor lives in Manhattan and his name is Cohen.’

“Joe took a sack of nickels to a diner that had a pay phone booth and started calling the Cohens in the Manhattan phone booth,” Allard continued. “Eventually, he reached a Cohen who asked Joe if he had lived above a stable and if his mom was diabetic. Dr Cohen was willing to make another house call but warned Joe the fee was now 100 bucks. Joe, who loved playing craps in his spare time, paid for the doctor with his saved winnings and his mother lived for many more years.”

Even in his later years, Crea had a sense of humor. When asked how he was doing, he was known to reply, “From the belly button up, terrific. From the belly button down, not so hot. On the plus side, I have my computer and more time to read.”

During the Brooklyn Law School Icons Gala that was held in 2015, Crea was not only honored, but school officials also presented him with a birthday cake to mark his 100th birthday. With a huge crowd of people in attendance, everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Crea and waved flashlights in the air.

“The law school event on Ellis Island, where we celebrated Joe as an iconic figure in the school’s history and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in the very place his parents entered the United States, was unforgettable,” Allard said. “Joe could not have had a broader grin on his face as 500-plus in the crowd sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and waved lights. That moment is worth hanging on to, to remember the best of who we are as a diverse people, and what can be done when we care and help each other. Thank you, Joe Crea, for the example of your shining life at a time when we need it.”

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