Oneonta lawyer John Scarzafava, 67, died Sunday after a long battle with lung cancer, his personal injury law partner Theo Basdekis said.
Scarzafava was remembered Monday by those who knew him for his legal expertise, intellect and community support.
While he leaves behind a mother, wife, a son, three daughters and other family members, “our mission is to carry on his good work,” Basdekis said. Scarzafava was not a smoker, but he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer almost five years ago.
Scarzafava was a 1965 Oneonta High School graduate and was inducted into its Wall of Distinction in 2010. He went to St. Bonaventure University in 1973. While he was attending St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, where he graduated from in 1975, he studied under one of the country’s leading authorities on defective product and injury law, which became his calling. In 1993, he was selected St. Bonaventure’s Alumnus of the Year. He returned to Oneonta to practice full time in 1981, and earlier this year was named the Oneonta Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Citizen of the Year.
Basdekis said in the 20 years he knew him, Scarzafava was both a mentor and a friend.
“Everything I know of trial law, I know from John,” Basdekis said. He said Scarzafava enjoyed assisting clients who might be out of a paycheck and were getting their lives together following a mishap, saying that was the most fulfilling part of his job.
That passion was probably influenced by his “blue collar” father who worked for the the Delaware and Hudson Railway and Amphenol Corp., Basdekis said.
Scarzafava had a great sense of humor and he was a master storyteller. He admired President John F. Kennedy and took one of his favorite sayings to heart in helping the community in a number of ways, including fundraising: “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
“It’s a huge loss, said Oneonta attorney Richard “Otto” Rothermel. “He was the sharpest attorney in the area” and the only one he knew of practicing at a national level. Scarzafava was profiled in a New York Magazine as one the top trial lawyers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. His efforts led to recognition by the most prestigious societies in the legal field, and was co-counsel in a case that clarified the law of product liability, according to his obituary.
“He fought for his clients,” Rothermel said. “He never left any stone unturned.” One of his strengths was being a great storyteller, who could make his clients story’s come alive in the courtroom. His successes against such large companies are responsible for saving a lot of lives, Rothermel said.
Rothermel added that Scarzafava was also a great family man, and everything revolved around his wife Nettie Jean and their children. When Scarzafava was diagnosed with cancer, he was given six months to live. Rothermel said he handled it like he would a case, doing what he had to do to get the best treatment.
“He fought a good fight,” Rothermel said.
Otsego County Judge Brian Burns said his “untimely death is a loss to the whole community.” As a an attorney, who had practiced in his court, Burns admired the passion he brought to a case and his eloquence as a speaker. He embodied the ideal of a lawyer who zealously protected his client’s right, Burns said.
“He was always so well prepared. I enjoyed watching him work,” Burns said. On a personal level, Burns said, he found him intelligent, humorous, and fiercely loyal to his friends and family. He was also very generous, for example working with Burns to set up a moot court that allowed law students to learn how to participate in a trial.
“He set a really high bar for others,” Burns said. “He was a great example of what the best is.”
Medical Coaches President Geoff Smith had known Scarzafava since the two played in little league baseball together in elementary school. They also graduated from high school together.
“He was unique,” Smith said. “He was not afraid to raise his hand” and get involved, whether that was raising money for such groups as the local Family Service Association, Boys and Girls Club, or following his other interests. Scarzafava was a great reader, enjoying history and religion, Smith said, adding that he used that intellect to make sure he was prepared.