A Good Age: Retired Judge Al Kramer turns to past adventures in his first novel at age 89

QUINCY – You never know when an idea you jot down in your youth might turn into something bigger – in Al Kramer’s case, a novel.

In the mid-1970s, I began hearing other reporters at The Patriot Ledger who covered the courts and the police discussing Judge Albert Kramer. He was different and he was shaking things up.

In his early 40s, Kramer was the new presiding justice at Quincy District Court. 

Retired Quincy District Court Judge Albert Kramer, 89.

He was a liberal Democrat appointed by Republican Gov. Francis Sargent and he had come in with a mission of reform: “to make a difference in people’s lives, especially the people who needed it the most,” he said last week.

“When I was going to be appointed as a judge, I asked for Quincy because it was the third-largest District Court in the state.” 

Raised in Chelsea, Kramer already had served as a Chelsea city councilor, state legislator and chief policy adviser to the governor where he had run interference for welfare and antiwar protesters. In the 1960s, he helped found the Mass. Law Reform Institute and was active in the Massachusetts Defenders Committee. 

Soon after Judge Kramer arrived in Quincy in December 1974, attorney Jeffrey Isaacson, of Kingston, recalled, “One could just walk into the courthouse and see the transformation taking place. This was due to both race and languages spoken.”

In 1975, Kramer and Andrew Klein, chief probation officer, started a program called Earn-it that became a national model. It spared youthful offenders from going to jail if they performed community service jobs. In 1979, CBS’ “60 Minutes” and Dan Rather came to Quincy to report on it and by 1980, Earn-it was the largest adult and juvenile restitution program in the nation. More than 1,200 defendants had worked for 60 agencies and paid more then $175,000 in restitution to victims.

In 1984, the South Shore Coalition for Human Rights presented Kramer with its annual Citizen of the Year Award for his commitment to affirmative action in employment at the court. 

"Competing Harms" is the first novel written by retired Quincy District Court Judge Al Kramer.

“He was willing to stand up and say what he thought was right,” Vicki Kaufman, of Weymouth, the coalition president in 1984, recalled. “The coalition was unanimous in the decision to present him with the award, for all of the principled and courageous decisions he made. He took stands on what were controversial issues.”

Kramer became particularly known for innovations in protecting victims of domestic violence and making them aware of their rights to press criminal charges. In 1992, “60 Minutes” returned with Ed Bradley to cover that program’s success.

 “It is hard to remember how unprogressive most of society was back then on the issue of domestic violence, and he was so progressive,” Kaufman said. 

Kramer also cracked down on first-time offenders in drunken driving cases. He continued to shake things up for 18 years until he retired at the end of 1992. At 59, he took advantage of a one-time early retirement offer from the state to its judges.

“I remember I was so disappointed when he left,” Deanna White-Hebert, of Pembroke, said 30 years later. “We haven’t had anybody like him before or since. His name was in the Ledger often, making decisions that I agreed strongly with. He was very well-respected on the South Shore.”

Retired at age 59, Kramer turned to his own law firm and also helped salvage two struggling companies. In 1996, he and his wife, Ruth, moved from Brookline to Swampscott and in 2004 to Oceanside, California, closer to their two sons, Kerry Shapiro and Leland Shapiro, and now a granddaughter, Ella, in ninth grade. Kramer remains active in his law firm but only takes on pro bono cases.

At age 89,  “doing great,” Kramer is back in the news.

A Lawyers Weekly article by Kris Olson in August reported that Kramer recently published his first novel, “Competing Harms.” Kramer described it as a “historical political thriller,” available online, in paperback and by e-book.

Reached last week in California, Kramer said that when he was in law school but also very busy in politics, he jotted down notes for a story about a brilliant but restless second-year law student who quits school for a higher purpose.

He saved the notes and then two years ago came across them and began writing. The story is semi-autobiographical. Alan, the hero of the story, is also a second-year law student. 

Kramer has always written – legal briefs, proposals for reforms of government policies, opinion pieces for The Algemeiner Journal. He finds fiction “very different and very interesting” and editing “the fun part – you can still make plot changes.” His most productive time is at night, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., when he won’t be interrupted. “I have to be alone,” he said.

One of his biggest fans is Russel Pergament, managing partner at State House News Service, who in 1993 hired Kramer to save his struggling consulting business, Travelers Marketing in Natick, which Kramer continues to run with a managing partner. The company finds private sponsors for programs that receive federal money to aid travelers, such as MAPFRE Insurance roadside assistance, and is now in 35 states.

Pergament, who co-founded the former TAB newspaper chain, regards Kramer as “my friend, my spiritual adviser, my lawyer” and described a “restless, revolutionary, brilliant, groundbreaking” man who “has to keep thinking and writing and negotiating.”

Asked what formed his remarkable drive, Kramer spoke with great affection of his early years as one of three children raised in Chelsea by Jewish parents who had fled the pogroms in Russia.

“I was very lucky to have the family I had growing up,” he said. “There was a lot of love, even though we never had money and we had problems. My mother was a wonderful, wonderful woman and my father was always talking about reforms.”

His father, with poor eyesight, sold newspapers when it was a very lively, competitive business in Boston. His mother took care of the home and the money. Kramer, a school basketball star at 5 feet, 3 inches, earned his law degree from Boston University while also campaigning in Chelsea. 

He tells one formative story: One night in ninth  grade, helping to pick up and deliver newspapers, he witnessed his father get beaten up while standing up for strikers. When he asked his father, still on the ground, why he did that, his father replied, “I’m doing it for you,” and added, “You need to stand up for what is right. It could be you or someone you care about next.”  Kramer took it as a life lesson.

“That is one of my attributes, I guess, that makes me want to change things, make things better,” Kramer said. “My nature is to always look and say, “Can this be improved?’ “

He has carried that spirit into his novel, which pits the hero who opposes the Vietnam  War against those who profit from it. Pergament praised “a fast-moving conspiratorial drama that thrusts you back into the turbulent ’60s with the antiwar movement and protests. It is clear Judge Kramer’s political background and two decades on the bench have given him unique knowledge and perspective of the times.”

The online overview: “Alan, a brilliant, charismatic law student, shocks everyone by quitting school. He is persuaded by Sevana, a captivating grad student, to help organize a national student antiwar movement. The coverup, twists and shocking turn of events by powerful arms dealers conspiring to foil Alan’s attempt to shorten an unpopular war and jeopardize their billion-dollar military contracts bewilder him at every move.”

Working without an outline, Kramer said he created characters and scenes so that “each takes you to the next place.” His favorite writers are Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. His favorite poet/songwriters are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen; he begins the book with Dylan lyrics.  

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Asked by Patriot Ledger reporter Mary Whitfill how the courts today differ from his era, he replied: “Today, the mental health of adults committing crimes or bad acts, or the early deprivation in the lives of juveniles, are mitigating factors. 

“Not so in earlier times. In fact, prior to 1970 and in many states In 1980, juveniles were put in reform school, a form of jail, for simply missing school or running away, when they were running away from alcoholic parents or poorly run foster homes.” In the Sargent administration, he dedicated himself to closing reform schools and creating community-based treatment programs.  

As he anticipates turning 90 next July, Kramer sustains his pace, his humor and his graciousness.

He believes past cardiac issues are well-managed. In 1982, at age 49, he had quadruple bypass surgery, a relatively new intervention. It went well and lasted until four years ago, when he needed a stent. He exercises regularly by walking, rides a bike indoors, plays lively pingpong with his son and does stretches for his back.

He is not promising a second novel just yet, but he has written six chapters.

His parting parry to the passage of time: “I never had a heart attack, my EKG is fine. With a little luck, maybe I’ll live long enough to see the Patriots win a championship without Brady.”   

Kramer may be reached at al@kramerlawoffices.com.

Reach Sue Scheible at sscheible@patriotledger.com.

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