John Pickrel, longest-serving Dayton Municipal Court judge, dies

Former Judge John Pickrel, the longest-serving judge on the Dayton Municipal Court bench and founder of its mental health docket, has died. He was 75.

“He was, without a doubt, just the sweetest, gentlest soul of any person I’ve ever met,” said Montgomery County Commission President Judy Dodge, Pickrel’s partner of nearly 16 years.

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Born April 7, 1945, Pickrel graduated from Chaminade High School in 1963, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Dayton in 1967 and his law degree from Ohio State University in 1970.

Pickrel’s career began with the Model Cities Program, a federal anti-poverty initiative. He then worked in the public defender’s office and in private practice before becoming a judge in 1984. He was a resident of Washington Twp. and retired from the bench Jan. 1, 2016.

While Pickrel may not have heard headline-grabbing cases, he became the longest-serving judge on the city’s “people’s court,” said close friend David P. Williamson, a Dayton attorney and the judge’s golfing partner for more than three decades.

“For 99% of our fellow citizens, their one and only exposure to the court system is municipal court because they’re there for a traffic infraction or a minor criminal infraction,” Williamson said. “They really are dispensing with justice that is personal: the status of people’s driver’s licenses, the status of people’s protective order as to whether or not the husband who is accused of having hit his wife can go home.”

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But Pickrel will best be remembered in the legal community for the development of the court’s mental health docket — a novel approach in 2003, which was later duplicated in courts across the country, Williamson said.

The groundbreaking program diverted people from the criminal justice system and toward behavioral health care providers.

Pickrel’s thinking was “way ahead of its time” and reflected his personality, Williamson said.

“He was a very, very empathetic person,” he said. “John recognized that we were asking police officers to go and deal with bad guys. But many times they were faced with people who weren’t bad guys; they were people in need of mental health services.”

The Greater Dayton Brain Health Foundation awarded Pickrel its 2013 Innovation Award for his work developing and implementing the program.

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“His whole philosophy was just to be good to other people and treat them with respect,” Dodge said. “I have had so many comments from people that say one thing about John is, he always made you feel so special when you talked to him and gave them respect.”

Pickrel, who died Sunday, had a stroke more than two weeks ago and never regained consciousness, Dodge said.

Pickrel and Dodge became partners after previous marriages.

Pickrel was the third of 10 children born to Janet and Richard Pickrel. He is survived by two daughters, a son and five grandchildren.

“He adored his family, his children, and his grandchildren — just adored them,” Dodge said. “And he always just had a sweet sense of humor. He was always humble. He never bragged about anything. It’s just been a real loss for so many people.”

Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. July 7 at Marker & Heller Funeral Home, 5844 Old Troy Pike in Huber Heights. A private service will be held July 8 at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton.

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