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Epilogue | Francis Ernest "Ernie" Dowd

Labor relations Judge Ernie Dowd strove for fairness

ST. PETE BEACH — At the very hour Wisconsin state police were escorting protesters out of the state Capitol building or dragging them out by their feet, friends and family were gathered in St. Pete Beach to eulogize a key local figure in labor relations.

Divisions rending Wisconsin and other states would have concerned Judge Francis E. "Ernie" Dowd, who spent his career in labor relations.

Judge Dowd, a retired regional director of the National Labor Relations Board who decided hundreds of cases pitting workers against management or their own unions — and worked just as meticulously at managing everything from household emergencies to the art of playing poker — died March 4, the result of lingering heart problems. He was 80.

Friends called him "Judge," a fitting sobriquet for a man who prized regularity and order. His family said Judge Dowd spent considerable energy preparing for calamities.

"He had lists of electricians and plumbers with phone numbers and addresses," Tom Dowd, his son, told friends gathered at his funeral on an overcast Thursday morning at St. John Vianney Catholic Church. "He had a master list — a list of lists."

He thinks his father worried too much. "It was his sense of responsibility," he said.

Around the house, he wore a white golf shirt and dark shorts with black knee socks. He showed up so often in that attire, friends dressed the same way for his birthday party a few years ago.

"He burst out laughing," said Mark Oluvic, a longtime friend. "He loved it."

Most of the photos at a reception following the service show the judge smiling. He knew how to have a good time, as evidenced by a regimen on dozens of cruises with his wife and friends that included three evening appetizers (the first delivered to his room, with a Beefeater gin), a show and a trip to the casino, where he tried to improve his knowledge of craps.

Born in Seneca Falls, N.Y., Judge Dowd served with the Army in Germany during the Korean War. He then completed his education, earning degrees from Le Moyne College and Georgetown University's law school.

He started as an investigator with the NLRB, an affiliation that would last a lifetime.

"He could have worked for, say, the Securities and Exchange Commission," said Tom Dowd, himself an employment lawyer who represents management. "But he felt that labor was the only place where you can make a genuine difference in the lives of individuals."

He took to heart the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which safeguarded the right of private-sector workers to organize labor unions, bargain collectively or participate in strikes.

He met Martha Doharty, with whom he shared an Irish heritage, at a Catholic club in Bethesda, Md. Their marriage lasted 52 years because of mutual respect, said Martha Dowd.

"He allowed me to do what I wanted to do, and I allowed him to do what he wanted to do," she said.

The family moved to the Tampa Bay area, where the NLRB appointed Judge Dowd its regional director. He ruled on striking jai alai players, bucked the Teamsters in a hospital case and sided with a longshoremen union in an internal dispute over seniority rights.

He also served as an associate chief judge and assistant chief counsel for the Department of Labor, and as an administrative law judge for the Federal Labor Relations Authority — an independent agency he helped found, which settles disputes between federal employees and the government. He retired in 1994.

Asked how his father would have viewed Wisconsin senators diminishing the collective bargaining rights of state workers, his son said, "I think he would have been surprised that it has become an issue. From his perspective, the right to bargain together was so fundamental."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Francis Ernest "Ernie" Dowd

Born: April 6, 1930.

Died: March 4, 2011.

Survivors: Wife Martha; son Tom; daughter MaryEllen O'Lary; sister Sister Ruth Dowd; five grandchildren.

Labor relations Judge Ernie Dowd strove for fairness 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 5:45pm]
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