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Boston Globe Home Section

December 26, 2002

NORTHAMPTON - On average, the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court processes 22,000 divorces a year. The man overseeing the 51 judges who preside over these cases - as well as 2,300 adoptions, 4,000 disputes over guardianship of minors, 14,800 determinations of paternity (a third of the children in the state are born out of wedlock), and a broad range of probate issues including 22,000 wills - is Sean M. Dunphy.

In all, 154,067 cases were entered into the Probate and Family Court system last year.

The first chief justice of any of the state's seven trial courts to hail from western Massachusetts, Dunphy, 61, with his wife, Ann, director of workforce training at the state's community colleges, divides his time between Boston and their home in Northampton.

Their house here borders conservation land where they can hike in the woods for miles without encountering civilization. That, and cheering the Red Sox at Fenway, are among the couple's favorite pastimes. (Ann even acknowledges having worn a Walkman to a Clancy Brothers concert in 1986 so as not to miss the World Series.)

Their neighbors include a black bear who once dragged a barrel of birdseed from their garage out into the street for a mid-winter snack with her cub.

Dunphy, then a practicing lawyer, began his political career at age 28 on the Northampton Planning Board. (His grandfather practiced dentistry in the city from 1903 to 1963, and his father was a district court judge.) In 1969, in a race between the "Hamp" old guard and what would become the "Noho" revitalizers (or Yuppiefiers, depending on your point of view), Dunphy won his first of three terms as Northampton's mayor.

Dunphy credits some key zoning changes with having laid the groundwork for the ailing mill town's transformation into an arts and restaurant mecca. In particular, a decision to encourage the creation of apartments above the old storefronts helped bring the downtown back to life.

"We benefited from some wonderful entrepreneurs who graduated from Hampshire College and decided to stay in the area," said Dunphy.

He also hired the first city planner and helped create the first conservation commission.

(Mounted on the wall in his home is a copy of the Northampton town budget for 1845. Of the $10,632.05 in total expenditures, $4,000 went to the schools and $363 for military bounties.)

In 1978, Michael Dukakis appointed Dunphy as a Probate and Family Court judge. One of his proudest achievements in that post, and one he has worked to replicate statewide, was to institute a mandatory education program for parents going through a divorce. Participants must pay $50 each for two sessions in which they learn about such basics as not using their children as messengers between each other.

"People lose sight of the needs of their children in the process of separating themselves from each other," said Dunphy.

He got the idea for the course from an article in Parade magazine about a program in Cobb County, Georgia.

Now, beginning his second five-year appointment as chief justice of the Probate and Family Court system, he reflects on a career devoted, in large part, to listening to heart-wrenching stories about some of the most intimate and painful human experiences. "It's very difficult, because you're making such important decisions that affect people's lives," he said. "I think most of my colleagues find it hard, but also very satisfying."

He acknowledges that it is a difficult job to leave at the office. "You're not shutting down your machine when you go home," he said. "You're always thinking about the case you heard the day before."

The Dunphys' two daughters, Elizabeth, 34, and Jennifer, 32, live in the Washington, D.C., area. Between them, they have five children, and one of Sean and Ann Dunphy's concerns is that their grandchildren may grow up to be Orioles fans.

They share Red Sox season tickets with several friends, and in an attempt to build New England loyalty in at least one of their grandchildren, Dunphy took him to a game last summer and arranged to have "Happy Birthday Brendan" flashed on the scoreboard.

Ann, 59, is the self-proclaimed president of the western Massachusetts branch of the Dwight Evans fan club. She is also a trustee of the Northampton Academy of Music and was named the 1992 Northampton Democrat of the Year.

In addition to being home-team boosters in Boston, they are also boosters of the western part of the state. With their grandchildren visiting for Christmas this year, they planned to take in the region's newest attractions: the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst and the just-renovated Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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