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Gregory Pechukas

Died: July 21, 2016

Gregory Pechukas passed away peacefully in his sleep on July 21, 2016; the cause of death was a long-time battle with lung cancer. He was a man of significant professional accomplishments, but also known for his humor, personality, quirks, and passions.

Because Greg’s father was a noted physicist and General Electric executive, Greg lived in a number of corporate locations, was born in Akron, OH, and graduated from Bronxville High School. He entered Yale in 1962, was in Timothy Dwight College, and majored in History, Arts, and Letters. Following Yale, he attended University of Pennsylvania Law School, graduating in 1969.

His strong interest in criminal justice reform caused him to take his initial job with Legal Aid in New Orleans. When he discovered after a period of years that he no longer found the fulfillment he sought, he left to travel in Europe for two years, working in a brewery and shipyard in Germany and the Netherlands. He returned to New Orleans, and for a time was engaged in private legal practice.

When given the opportunity to work for the Louisiana Supreme Court, he jumped at the chance. He became the Director of the Court’s Central Staff, established to manage the Court’s criminal docket and filings. For more than 37 years, during which time he served five Chief Justices, he was the Court’s leading staff lawyer assisting the court in its review of criminal cases. He was responsible for supervising a staff of over two dozen employees who processed and reported on designated criminal writ applications for the Justices and who assisted in researching and writing criminal law opinions. He was responsible for over 1000 legal opinions and earned the nickname for his role as “Justice Per Curiam.”

He was honored for his work by receiving the 2011 Calogero Justice Award from the Louisiana Bar Association. When his physical decline was inevitable, he received the New Orleans Innocence Project’s highest award for his strategic direction of the Supreme Court to prevent regressive decisions. He was carried from his sickbed to the event, where he gave a strong speech to a standing ovation. His son, Zachary Crawford-Pechukas, shared his father’s passion for criminal justice, by working for the Innocence Project before attending law school.

In addition to his professional accomplishments, he was a man of many interests and strong passions. He was a former racing bicyclist, marathon runner, and mountain climber (of the Teton range in Wyoming and the 14-foot rock wall in his erstwhile dining room). He expressed his passion for the works of Richard Wagner with neighbors both at Yale and in New Orleans by broadcasting the music through loudspeakers aimed at them. He could often be seen in New Orleans walking his many St. Bernard and, in later years, German Shepherd dogs. One year he was designated by a promotional magazine as “Dog Man of Uptown.”

He was noted for not only his great intelligence and professional leadership, but for his sense of humor, kindness, quirky demeanor, and many friends, drawn from all walks of life.

James S. Roberts

Thaddeus Tuleja remembers:

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death last summer of our classmate Gregory Pechukas. Greg and I were fellow members of Timothy Dwight College and of the divisional major History, the Arts, and Letters, in which he distinguished himself with a senior thesis on, if I remember correctly, a single movement of a Mahler symphony. He was passionate about classical music, and at a time when the hallways rang endlessly with the sounds of the Beatles, Greg’s thundering Wagner recordings provided a unique counterpoint.

Greg had a keen wit, a rambunctious energy, and a wry gift for puncturing pretension. I was the recipient of that gift once when he twitted me for mixing metaphors. I had written in a paper that there was a pitfall lurking in a certain argument. “Pray tell,” Greg asked me slyly, “if a pitfall is essentially a hole, how then can it lurk?” On another occasion, during one of our post-lunch coffee marathons, someone was struggling to explain das Absolute, the German idealist notion of a transcendent reality. Greg lifted the lid of a sugar bowl, peered inside, and shouted gleefully, “Aha! Das Absolute!” Like Hamlet’s Yorick, he was “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

After graduation Greg and I stayed in touch for a while, exchanging letters between Penn, where he was in law school, and Cornell, where I was in graduate school, and in 1969 we drove across the country together, from LA to DC. When he settled in New Orleans to practice law, though, we lost touch. When Katrina struck in 2005, I left a message on his answering machine but didn’t hear back. I regret to this day that I never followed up on that call.

According to his obituary in the New Orleans Advocate, Greg worked for many years directing the Central Staff of the Louisiana Supreme Court, where he was known for his “sense of humor and quirky demeanor.” That fit the young man I knew, although the years since Yale had also obviously enlarged him, as he became a dog lover, a mountain climber, a supporter of the Innocence Project, and a loving father. His son Zachary is studying law at Washington and Lee University.

It’s strange that you can be hit so hard by the death of someone you haven’t seen in nearly forty years. Yet I do feel that. In the obituary photograph, Greg has the same wide-eyed, puckish expression that he had at twenty. In my memory he will always remain that bright presence: deeply insightful, irrepressibly playful, forever young.