Never mind that he's an octogenarian – Judge A. Jay Cristol has not remotely begun to slow down. At 82, he maintains a full calendar in his downtown Miami courtroom, and after 27 years on the bench, still finds bankruptcy law fascinating.
When Judge Cristol – who graduated from the University of Miami School of Law in 1959 and is Chief Judge Emeritus of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida – dons his robes, his pencil-thin mustache fashioned like a film star's of yesteryear, it is a labor of love.
Among the other loves in his life, Judge Cristol's late wife and the laws of bankruptcy figure prominently. In honor of one and in support of the other, Judge Cristol has made a sizeable donation to Miami Law, a gracious act for which he was honored at a reception on April 12 in the Alma Jennings Foundation Student Lounge. Judge Cristol's gift will go toward the school's bankruptcy clinic, which is to be known as the Eleanor R. Cristol and Judge A. Jay Cristol Bankruptcy Pro Bono Assistance Clinic.
Between court hearings, teaching at Miami Law and an active schedule of charity events, Judge Cristol still takes to the air behind the controls of a private aircraft whenever he gets the chance. His office is replete with memorabilia of a life well lived – travel photos with his beloved wife, images of his sons growing up, the judge clad in flight suits and a huge smile in front of all manner of aircraft, and enough model planes hanging from the ceiling to make an enthusiast weep. He has packed several lifetimes into his years, and wears them all with elegance and a good measure of glee.
"AJ," as he became known, came to Miami Beach in 1930s, his family fleeing the disastrous impact of the Depression on rural Pennsylvania. His parents opened a beachwear shop while AJ attended Miami Beach High School and, at 15, surreptitiously took flying lessons "until my mother found out about it and grounded me."
The Korean War interrupted AJ's education at the University of Miami. He joined the U.S. Navy and, after completing flight school, was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Princeton in the Sea of Japan. He flew Grumman AF "sub killers" by day and so-called hunter-killers by night, completing 86 landings on aircraft carriers, 26 of them at night.
After the war, he returned to the University of Miami. He completed his undergraduate degree in Philosophy in 1958 and his J.D. in 1959, although his service in the Navy would continue until his retirement with the rank of captain in 1989. He joined the Judge Advocate General's Corps and graduated with distinction from the Naval Justice School. He flew operational missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and volunteered for airlifts to Vietnam in the 1960s; lectured at the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo, Italy, on assignment from the Department of Defense; and received more than a dozen decorations, among them the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Navy Achievement Medal.
He also practiced civil law. Early in his career, he was introduced by a client to the lovely Eleanor Rubin. On their first date, at the Everglades Hotel, they found they had a lot in common: Both their families had moved to Miami Beach when they were children and they both had attended Miami Beach High School. (Later in life, that fact would often prompt people to ask whether they had dated each other in high school, to which he would respond, "Twelfth graders rarely dated second-graders.") They married a year after meeting and celebrated with an elegant dinner at FunFare – she with pizza and he with a hot dog.
Eleanor Cristol had also attended UM and was the youngest female certified public accountant in Florida at the time. She had such a good professional reputation that she was invited to join the Internal Revenue Service. "One day they sent her out to report on a lady they suspected of not reporting her tips," the judge recalled. "The lady rode a bike to work and was living in a broken-down trailer. When she offered Elly a glass of water, there was nothing in her little refrigerator but a bottle of water. Elly was so distressed she resigned the next day."
She kept the books for her husband's law practice while raising their two boys, Stephen and David. She was active in the PTA and came up with the brilliant idea of renting out the parking lots at Beach High School during the annual Miami Beach Boat Show, providing the PTA with a windfall of thousands of dollars a year for their coffers. She was a founder of both Mount Sinai Medical Center and the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged, where she served on the Executive Board for many years. She was a Grand Founder at UM and served on the board at Temple Beth Sholom for more than 20 years. She was president of the Women's Cancer League at Mount Sinai and of the UM School of Business Administration's Alumni Association.
The Cristols delighted in traveling – even though "Elly's favorite place was Miami Beach," according to Judge Cristol. Their first big trip was to Tokyo and Hong Kong, where she was ejected from an all-male mahjong parlor. They traveled the world together, with Eleanor honing her skills on the craps tables in Macao, Monte Carlo, London and Vienna. "She was a heavy plunger," Judge Cristol said with an ironic smile. "She thought nothing of losing $20 on a weekend."
He served as Special Assistant Attorney General of Florida, and after 25 years of civil law practice, stepped down as senior partner in a firm he founded to accept an appointment to the Federal Bench. At Miami Law, Judge Cristol teaches Reorganization in Bankruptcy, a seminar that studies principal issues raised by Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. He has also taught Law of War and served as the administrative officer for the summer Naval Reserve law courses at Naval Justice School in Newport, R.I.
Judge Cristol earned a Ph.D. in 1997 from the University of Miami Graduate School of International Studies after spending 17 years researching an attack during the Six Day War on the USS Liberty, in which 34 Americans died. He wrote a book on the subject, The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship (Potomac Books, 2002).
Judge Cristol was President of the Law Alumni Association in 1985, and received the Thomas Davidson III Memorial Service Award. He also received the Henry Latimer Professionalism Award at the law school's Homecoming Breakfast in 2008.
Eleanor Cristol died on Nov. 14, 2010. At an event celebrating her life, Judge Cristol said, "She has given me the most wonderful, beautiful years of my life."