Longtime Hamilton attorney and Butler County Common Pleas Judge Matthew J. Crehan died Tuesday. He was 86.
Most known as a fearless judge, the New York City native had a life before the law, including the Marines, the FBI and a short stint in the business world.
The son of Irish immigrants, Crehan grew up on 96th Street and Third Avenue. He worked as a shoe shine boy, then an usher at Radio City Music Hall in his teens.
He was the “smart kid” who earned scholarships to topnotch schools, according to his older son, Thomas.
He graduated from Manhattan College and was a captain in the United States Marine Corps. In 1962, he married Sheila, who died in 2008.
After military service, he attended New York University Graduate School of Business and worked in private industry prior to joining the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a special agent in 1964.
Thomas Crehan said his father was most proud of being a Marine and that three-year chapter in his professional life.
“He thought about staying in the Marines but he didn’t think mom would like it,” Thomas Crehan said. So Crehan took a job using his business degree. His time in the FBI was a better fit, and in 1971, while still an agent, he received his law degree from the Salmon P. Chase College of Law.
Thomas Crehan said the family was transferred to the Cincinnati area and they lived in Hamilton. When the FBI wanted to move Crehan to Washington, he quit and began his legal career.
“He didn’t want to leave Hamilton,” Thomas Crehan said. “I once told him I was jealous that he grew up in New York. He said, ‘I know, but it’s not Hamilton.’”
In 1972, Crehan entered private practice, establishing the Hamilton law firm Baden, Jones, Scheper & Crehan. He was first elected county common pleas judge in 1988, retiring in 2007, but he continued to serve as a retired assigned judge and mediator until 2016.
Retired county common pleas and 12th District Court of Appeals Judge H.J. Bressler described Crehan as the “epitome of a lawyer’s lawyer and the epitome of a judge’s judge. He was fearless. He always wanted to do the right thing whether it was popular or not.”
Common Pleas Judge Noah Powers II received encouragement from Crehan early in his career and admired his legal mind.
“Matt was loved and respected by the entire legal community,” Powers said. “He had a keen intellect, was a pragmatic problem-solver, and a good public servant. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.”
Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser was a friend and colleague of Crehan who also went head-to-head with him in the courtroom while an assistant prosecutor.
“As an assistant prosecutor, Matt was a defense attorney and he was a fierce adversary. I mean fierce,” Gmoser said. “And as a common pleas judge, he was absolutely one of the finest judges this county has had. He took an interest in every case that came before him. He paid attention, made sure lawyers were prepared and ultimately made them better lawyers.”
Middletown Attorney Chris Pagan was one who learned in Crehan’s courtroom, including defending the man who had his death sentence rejected by Crehan.
“He represented the best values of the profession. He was fearless about public opinion and ensured that his judging was independent,“ Pagan said. “In my first death penalty case, he overruled a jury verdict imposing death. In his independent judgment, it was not an appropriate case for it. The media was unpleased, but it was, at minimum, Judge Crehan’s honest assessment of the facts and law.”
Pagan said he and Crehan understood his role as an attorney and didn’t hold a grudge even when things got heated after the judge overruled one of his motions.
“He will be missed. And I hope that younger members of the bar remember Judge Crehan’s legacy and strive to emulate him,” Pagan said.
Crehan was an avid cyclist and sailor. He also enjoyed cross country skiing, scuba diving and traveling.
Gmoser was one of five attorneys that included Crehan who made a yearly trip to Florida for scuba diving and fishing.
“All we did was talk law, scuba dive and eat the fish that we caught. We all gained so much from it,” Gmoser said. He added Crehan was Irish through and through, and his wetsuit down to the flippers and mask were green.
Thomas Crehan said his father became a judge because he wanted to make things fairer.
“He didn’t do it for prestige or money. Didn’t care about politics and always wanted to stay a trial lawyer,” Thomas Crehan said. “He really believed every person deserves respect and justice.”
But his father would most likely want to be remembered not for his legal prowess, but “as a nice guy, because he was.”
In addition to Thomas, Crehan is survived by his son, Kenneth, a daughter Elizabeth, and four grandchildren.
The visitation will be at Weigel Funeral Home, 980 N.W. Washington Blvd. in Hamilton from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday. A Funeral Mass will be at St. Peter in Chains Catholic Church, 382 Liberty Ave. in Hamilton at 10 a.m. Saturday. Interment will follow in St. Stephen Cemetery.
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