Anthony Ben is no stranger to changes in life. The son of Sicilian immigrants was a "naval hospital man" during World War II who went on to decide he'd try to make a living in the law rather than medicine.
It was only the first change of heart for a lifelong Lockportian who recently "hung up his shingle" after 65 years in professional practice.
"I was hired right out of law school to be an associate with Gold, Speranza and Hughe," Ben said. "Two years later I had another change of heart and was ready to go it alone."
A new firm, Ben & Watson, was established in 1957, in the city where Ben was born in 1927 and where he and wife Earlene would raise their two sons, Charles and James.
Both boys went into law, but James Ben, who now resides in Connecticut, left the profession for investment banking.
Eldest son Charles Ben joined his father at work in 1980, after graduating from the University at Buffalo. The two formed a partnership that would endure for four decades.
"It was an indescribable pleasure," Anthony Ben said of working with Charles. "It made all the difference to me."
"I always wanted to join him in the practice of law. And it's been my honor to do so for the last 40 years," Charles said in return.
Anthony "always had a talent for understanding people and their problems and he was great at creating warm bonds," his son said. "People just generally trusted him and everybody, especially in the legal community, always expressed warmth towards him, from clients to the court staff, to judges, to law enforcement. It seemed like everybody I would deal with, when they'd see me, they'd smile and they would always ask about my dad."
Anthony's official retirement date was May 2, his 93rd birthday. He says his reason for working so long was "why not?" Eventually, though, he ran out of energy for the work.
"I never thought of 65 years when I was at 60," he said. "I woke up one morning and said, 'Holy mackerel! I've been doing this for 65 years.'"
Reflecting on the profession, Anthony says much has changed since he started out. After 65 years of practicing criminal and matrimonial law, he remains confident in his own time-tested formula for success.
"There's only one avenue to success, and that's hard work," he says. "You got to get up every morning and work."
What's more, he believes, there has to be a personal touch. There are different ways to interact with clients, but in all cases, he learned along the way, "You got to listen to their problems and make your client believe you are the only one who can solve all his problems."
Just out of law school in the 1950s, Anthony was assigned a murder case from County Court. He successfully defended his client, a woman accused of stabbing her boyfriend to death with a sharpened letter opener.
The victim and his client were indeed in a fight, and she did stab him, Anthony recalled, but he was able to show the hospital could've easily saved his life if they had diagnosed the problem correctly. Thus, the jury came back with a finding of "not-guilty."
In the end, Ben said, "It's just a job. It's a profession."
While Charles Ben said his dad has a great depth of knowledge when it comes to law, dad is in turn impressed with technology and the speed at which it can "spit out a law" for a lawyer.
"I don't care how smart you think you are, the computer somehow knows more," he said.
Anthony recalls fondly the camaraderie that once existed among lawyers working in the county seat: The clubs, the parties, playing cards with his fellow members of the Lockport Lawyer's Club. Today, he said, it's just a bunch of lawyers talking law. When it all changed is hard to say, but it did, he added.
Now that he has stopped practicing law, Anthony says he's not quite sure what to do with himself. He knows he wants to stay in Lockport; going to Florida for months at a time is too exhausting, and unlike snowbirds, he likes wintertime in western New York.
Retirement is "difficult to get used to," he conceded. "My whole I've been on the run, so to speak, very busy. Then all of a sudden, nothing."
But, he noted, he was fortunate to have a peaceful home life, and while he's not a man of many hobbies, he expects he will enjoy sitting with Earlene, reading books and watching television. There's also the Skype calls he gets from his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as the continued relationship he has with his children.
Before the pandemic hit, Anthony was meeting 15 other ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) for lunch every Wednesday at a different restaurant. The group formed more than 20 years ago as "just a group of guys" and transformed as they all got older. Anthony was the founding member,by virtue of him calling a friend and asking, "How about lunch?"
"They're from all walks of life: plumbers, carpenters, judges, lawyers," Anthony said. "It's a good group."
Now that Anthony has retired, Charles Ben has a new law partner in Scott Stopa. They're practicing out of the old Ben & Ben office at 193 East Ave.