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John Pessala, family court judge who advocated for adoption, dies at 65

John B. Pessala, a retired Nassau Family Court

John B. Pessala, a retired Nassau Family Court judge well known for his advocacy of adoption, died at the A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility in Uniondale after a long illness. He was 64. He is seen here on Nov. 17, 2006 with two-year-old Ashely Berger. Photo Credit: Dick Yarwood

John B. Pessala, a retired Nassau Family Court judge well known for his advocacy of adoption, died Tuesday at the A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility in Uniondale after a long illness. He was 65.

Pessala served on the Family Court 13 years. He was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1995, then elected in to the judgeship in 1996.

"An intelligent and compassionate judge, he had a positive and profound effect on individuals and families in crisis," said Thomas A. Adams, the administrative judge of Nassau County.

He had been a District Court judge for about two years before joining the family court.

Pessala was "the only judge in the nation who was born in Finland," his wife, Elizabeth, said.

He spent most of his life in the Salisbury section of Westbury after moving to the United States with his family when he was 6.

A graduate of SUNY Cortland, Pessala taught social studies at Smithtown Central High School for eight years. During much of that time, he attended St. John's University School of Law in Queens, making the dean's list. He graduated in 1978 and was admitted to the bar in 1979, becoming first a District Court attorney, then a deputy county attorney in the Family Court Bureau.

Pessala, a Republican, served as Hempstead senior deputy town attorney from 1981 to 1987. He was counsel to then-Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta from 1987 to 1993.

At about 6 feet, 8 inches tall, Pessala was "a big man with an even bigger heart," Gulotta said Wednesday. "He had a brilliant legal mind coupled with a strong desire to help other people. We became friends. His approach to problems was always an inclusive one, trying to bring everybody together."

Westbury Village Justice Thomas Liotti said he had known Pessala a long time but became close to him when he learned both of them were adopted. "He helped a lot of young people," he said.

Pessala was abandoned at an orphanage in Finland as an infant and brought to the United States by his adoptive parents. In the late 1980s, after his parents died, Pessala hired a private investigator to find his birth mother. He eventually located her in Finland but did not contact her.

He found and contacted other members of his biological family, including a second cousin, Doreen Mazzei-Buckman, 58, of Dix Hills.

"It was beyond my pleasure to get to know him and his beautiful wife," she said Wednesday. "We stayed in contact and met several times."

In addition to his wife, Pessala is survived by his son, Alexander of Washington, D.C., and a daughter, Anne Wongjirad of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Viewing will be Friday at McLaughlin Kramer Megiel Funeral Home in Glen Cove from 3 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 8:15 p.m., followed by a service.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made in Pessala's memory to the Finlandia Foundation, Metropolitan Chapter, P.O. Box 2590, Grand Central Station, NY 10163

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Pessala's age and height. 

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