Judge Milton R. Silva’s life on display at UMass Dartmouth
DARTMOUTH — Retired Judge Milton R. Silva looked wistfully at his personal items spanning several decades on display in a glass case at the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives at UMass Dartmouth.
On one end, his World War II military photo, garments, medals, soldier’s qualification card and newspaper clippings from the time he spent at Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany, are laid over an oversized copy of some of his writings.
The other side of the case is filled with his judicial robe and gavel, photos from his swearing-in ceremony and time on the bench and his 1985 Portuguese-American of the Year award given by O Jornal.
“It brings back memories… good and bad memories,” Judge Silva said. “I am proud of my community work, but I don’t like to recall the days I spent at the concentration camp.”
Silva, who turned 90 years old on June 16, took a first peek at the exhibition in his honor that will be on display at the Archives through the fall at an intimate family gathering held there last Friday.
The objects offer a window into Silva’s personal, military, judicial and political life, including some of the times he would rather not revisit.
A photo on display documents the time Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize Recipient and former inmate of Buchenwald, greets Judge Milton R. Silva during a visit to UMass.
For a long time, Silva rarely spoke about his experiences as a witness to the Holocaust. Although he grew up in the family’s funeral business, he said he was not prepared for what he ran into at the concentration camp, where bodies were stacked up like cordwood.
“I had no idea that they even existed,” said Silva about the concentration camps and the horrific conditions he found there. “I was never prepared for the sights, sounds and smells of that horrible place we went to.”
A native of Fall River, Silva was also a third-generation funeral director at one point in his life. His grandfather established the Silva Funeral Homes in 1890, and then his father took over.
The grandson of immigrants from the Azores, Silva attended Fall River public schools and graduated from B.M.C. Durfee High School in 1940.
He enrolled at Providence College (PC), but when World War II broke out, he quit PC and enrolled in the Boston School of Anatomy and Embalming with the hope of evading the draft.
It didn’t work and he was drafted to the U.S. Army in March of 1943. After being assigned to several divisions, he eventually ended up with the 120th Evacuation Hospital. He arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp on April 14, 1945, where his division spent 10 unforgettable days treating countless prisoners.
He eventually got discharged from the military in 1946 and reenrolled at PC. Upon graduation, he enrolled at Boston University Law School. He would attend law classes during the day and embalming school at night.
When his wife got pregnant, he quit law school and took up the embalmer’s trade.
“One day, I said, I am not going to do this for the rest of my life,” he recalled.
He returned to school, graduated from Suffolk University School of Law in 1952 and passed the Bar shortly thereafter.
“The rest is history,” he said.
Silva was the Police Commissioner for two terms (1954-58 and 1964-68). During that time, he helped revamp the structure of the Fall River Police Department by increasing the fleet of six patrol cars to 26, computerizing dispatch calls and implementing new shift changes so that police coverage could be more evenly distributed.
He was also elected as State Representative (1960-1964) and ran for State Senate in 1966 against the late Sen. Mary Fonseca.
Artifacts from that period are on display in two cases at the Archives.
“Those were all good years,” Silva recalled.
In 1971, he was appointed to the bench by former Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent.
He ended up with the nickname of “Not Guilty Milty.” He was appointed in the aftermath of the criminal law revolution of the 1960s and the early 1970s, the era of monumental judicial decisions such as Miranda [v. Arizona] and Escobedo [v.Illinois], and it was his job to put these to use.
He went on to be the presiding justice of the 2nd District Court of Bristol County, where he served until his retirement in 1991.
Throughout his life, he was active in several organizations and received a number of awards, including O Jornal’s “Portuguese-American of the Year” in tribute “to his many contributions” and “in recognition of the pride which he brings to the Portuguese-American community.”
Silva married his sweetheart, Maria Conceição Gaspar, in 1947. They had five children: Paul Francis, Christine Marie, Richard Henry, Ana Maria and Martin Anthony. He has 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Silva is currently penning his memoir with the help of his granddaughter Melanie.
“He is very modest, so it’s been a challenge to put this together,” she said. “He says ‘My relationships in my life are my greatest accomplishment.’ I always have to remind him that this is about him.’”
Silva, who has been an avid musician since playing with the Durfee High School band, still plays baritone saxophone on a weekly basis with the Swansea Community Band and the Providence Senior Civic Orchestra.
Known for his great a sense of humor, he also cracks a joke or two every now and then.
“That’s what keeps me young,” he said.
For more information on the exhibit, please call the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives at UMass Dartmouth at 508-999-8684.
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