It was the Western Massachusetts equivalent of “College Bowl,’’ with teams of high school students, buzzers at the ready, firing answers to questions about Lincoln’s assassin, tungsten’s melting point, or Mississippi’s capital. And it was where Bob Kumor’s trademark intellect first brightly shone.
As a 16-year-old contestant on Channel 22’s “As Schools Match Wits,’’ Mr. Kumor was nearly flawless for his Chicopee High School team, retiring the television quiz show’s trophy in the early 1960s and earning intellectual bragging rights for the blue-collar city he would later lead.
“Bob answered all the questions, and it brought a tremendous amount of pride to the community,’’ said David Modzelewski, a lifelong friend. “You know what he really did? He became our guide to a broadened world. He knew what people were reading, what they were eating, what they were drinking. And he brought that to us.’’
Mr. Kumor, who was elected Chicopee’s mayor at 33 and later served as presiding justice in Springfield District Court, died Sunday of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 67.
He was a Marine, a lawyer, a politician, and a judge. But for those with whom he worked and played Mr. Kumor was something more: a voracious reader, passionate debater, lover of the arts, amateur historian, and unapologetic contrarian.
“His life was extraordinarily broad in experiences and interests,’’ said Robert D. Fleischner, assistant director of the Center for Public Representation in Northampton, who met Mr. Kumor at Boston College Law School in 1967. “He loved to argue and to debate. He was almost always certain that he was right. And he usually was.’’
Mr. Kumor’s intellectual curiosity would help him govern his hometown city of 55,000 with 2,000 employees and a $40 million budget and, later, propel him into the administration of Governor Michael S. Dukakis, for whom he served as deputy commissioner in the Department of Environmental Management and assistant secretary in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
“Just a bright, thoughtful, progressive guy,’’ Dukakis said. “Bob had tons of integrity, and he was the best kind of public servant.’’
Justice Francis X. Spina of the state Supreme Judicial Court, whose long friendship with him was forged at law school, said Mr. Kumor traced his political roots to the gates of a Chicopee factory where he peddled newspapers as a boy.
“Bobby got this great paper route at that factory, and that’s how he got a taste for politics, because the politicians would all go there to shake hands and Bobby would give them advice on where to stand,’’ Spina said. “What he instilled in people was the idea that we’re in this together and together we’ve got to figure this thing out. He would solicit people’s opinions; he wouldn’t just tell them what to do. He had a genius in making people feel invested.’’
Robert F. Kumor Jr. was born Feb. 6, 1946, the son of Robert F. Kumor Sr. and Rita (Courtney) Kumor.
Local historian Stephen Jendrysik said that Mr. Kumor’s bravura quiz show performance, when television was still in its relative infancy, electrified his hometown, which could be the “butt of some humor between Springfield and Holyoke.’’
“The whole city watched,’’ Jendrysik said. “This was at a time when Chicopee had some very good athletic teams and he was the biggest star of them all, and it was for an academic team.’’
Mr. Kumor graduated in 1967 from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester with a bachelor’s degree. Three years later, he graduated from BC Law School. A Marine captain, he was a military judge and served in Okinawa, Japan, and off the coast of Vietnam.
As Chicopee’s mayor from 1980 to 1984, he created a Community Development Corporation to grapple with the economic fallout of plant closings, including the city’s largest employer, Uniroyal, where his father and grandfathers worked and where he had sold his newspapers.
He worked in the Dukakis administration from 1985 to 1990, when the Democratic governor appointed Mr. Kumor to the District Court bench. He worked in courtrooms in Western Massachusetts and was the presiding justice in Springfield from 1998 until 2005.
In 2002, after the Legislature stripped judges of the authority to hire probation officers and gave that power to Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien, Mr. Kumor and another judge petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court to return control to judges. The attempt failed, and it earned Mr. Kumor the ire of O’Brien, who has since been charged with bribing state legislators by giving jobs to their supporters, friends, and relatives. He is awaiting trial in federal court.
“People who just didn’t like the boat being rocked made his life a lot more difficult,’’ said R. Peter Anderson, a retired District Court judge. “But he was willing to do it because he believed in the cause and thought it was worth it.’’
Spina said Mr. Kumor’s criticism of the Probation Department was prescient. “It wasn’t working the way it should be working,’’ Spina said. “There was a lot of injustice. He was telegraphing the problem a long time ago.’’
When he retired from the bench in 2009, Mr. Kumor, as with everything else, directly confronted his ALS diagnosis.
“When I was diagnosed, it was a very difficult of course,’’ he said during his farewell, according to The Republican newspaper in Springfield. “You get some focus, I have to admit, when someone says, ‘Hey, buddy, things ain’t so hot.’ ’’
In retirement, despite illness, Mr. Kumor traveled widely and enjoyed the camaraderie of a large circle of friends who took turns bringing meals and engaging in a battle of wits.
“We called it ‘Dinner with Bobby,’ ’’ Modzelewski said. “He called it his own salon. They’d bring food, a little drink, and talk about art, music, dance, and, of course, politics.’’
Mr. Kumor had been looking forward to a large family reunion later this summer and planned to present his nephews and their children with blue New York Yankees jerseys adorned with the number 4 for Lou Gehrig, whose name has become synonymous with ALS.
Mr. Kumor leaves his sisters, Maryellen Kumor Channing of Chicopee and Susan Kumor Frisbie of Virginia.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Patrick’s Church in Chicopee Falls.
Some of his happiest moments, Mr. Kumor told close friends, were spent enjoying the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. And he was there last week with his friend, Superior Court Judge Mary-Lou Rup, to see a performance by Ballet BC from British Columbia.
“He lived and breathed the artistry of dance,’’ Rup said. “He loved the choreography. Like everything about Bob, he knew a lot about a lot of things, and he knew a lot about dance.’’
Rup and Mr. Kumor dined beforehand at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket, where many patrons wished him well. “It was a lovely evening, a wonderful dinner, and a great performance,’’ Rup said. “It’s nice to know that he had a good last week, even though none of us knew this was coming.’’