In 1989, Paul J. McManus told The Boston Globe that “what you devote yourself to says an awful lot about your priorities. If it’s inconsequential, it speaks volumes.”
Judge McManus, a Boston Municipal Court judge known for his compassion and keen sense of justice, lived by those words, family and friends said.
“So much of his focus and his life was working on making the system work for people who were disadvantaged,” said his brother, Jim McManus.
Paul McManus died Sunday at his home in Wellesley after fighting a rare, aggressive form of cancer for 16 months. He was 59.
Judge McManus was appointed to the bench in 2015. During his interview for the court, he said he “wanted everyone who entered his courtroom to be treated with dignity and that he wanted to bring redemption and mercy to an often unfair justice system,” according to his family.
“He did really believe in social justice and helping the poor,” said Carolyn Ryan, assistant managing editor at The New York Times and Judge McManus’s sister-in-law. “It was real with him.”
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey described Judge McManus as “the real deal.”
“He was a compassionate and dedicated jurist and equally dedicated to social and community justice issues,” she said.
After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in 1981, Judge McManus joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, teaching low-income students and coaching soccer in Houston.
According to his brother, the team was so good it might have won the championship if allowed to compete, but most of the players were ineligible because they were undocumented immigrants.
After graduating from law school, Judge McManus taught for about a year in the Worcester schools.
“He liked being with kids,” his brother said. “He liked helping them make the right choices in their lives.”
Sarah Bagley, Judge McManus’s oldest niece, recalled the time her uncle took her to the courthouse when she was a young girl, knowing she was interested in the law. A judge invited her to sit on the bench, and Judge McManus delighted in the sight of her presiding over the courtroom.
“To me it embodies how things with him were always funny and lighthearted,” Bagley said.
“But he was totally thinking of me and giving me this experience of showing me what life in law could be like.”
After teaching, Judge McManus joined the public defenders office, where he worked for 25 years in the Worcester, Framingham, and Boston offices.
Judge McManus fought vigorously to ensure his clients had a fair chance with juries, even if that meant rubbing cigarette ashes on his forehead, relatives recalled.
One year on Ash Wednesday, Judge McManus noticed that the prosecutor had ashes on his forehead, Ryan recalled. Concerned that such a show of religion, particularly Catholicism, could sway a Boston jury, Judge McManus objected, but was overruled.
In response, Judge McManus stepped out of the courtroom and found an ashtray.
“He was very resourceful, and he really advocated for his clients,” Ryan said.
Becoming a judge was the culmination of Judge McManus’s career, his brother said.
“Judge McManus was beloved, honored and respected by all and had a reputation for ruling with fairness, compassion, understanding and common sense,” said Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Robert Ronquillo. “His infectious smile lit up the room and he will truly be missed. The Commonwealth has lost a great judge.”
Outside the courtroom, Judge McManus ran in the Boston Marathon just to say he did, hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail, and once drove from Boston to Cape Cod to fix a flat tire for his wife, Elizabeth, whom his family repeatedly warned him “not to lose.”
“There was something that seemed kind of destined about their match,” Ryan said. “They both had a real idealism and a sense of mission and compassion. They just seemed made for one another.”
After being diagnosed with mesothelioma, Judge McManus underwent experimental clinical trials, chemotherapy, and surgery. He was able to return to the bench last year, but after Christmas felt himself slowing down.
This time, the treatments failed.
“Paul was a gift taken a little bit too soon,” Bagley said. “A total joy.”
In addition to his wife, Elizabeth, Judge McManus leaves two sons, Bobby of Fargo, N.D., and Jack of New York City; a sister, Mary Bagley of Worcester; and two brothers, Richard of Potomac, Md., and James of Southborough.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul Church in Wellesley.
The burial will be private.Aimee Ortiz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @aimee_ortiz.