Jim Fox, the Half Moon Bay native and Serra High School graduate who served seven terms as district attorney for San Mateo County, died Thursday.
He was 75.
The son of immigrant parents from Ireland who settled on the coastside, Fox is remembered as a man who loved his family, justice and his job.
Steve Wagstaffe, elected district attorney in 2010 after Fox retired, recalled Friday how Fox was the only D.A. in the state to oppose the Three Strikes Law.
Fox thought the 1994 measure was too broadly written and would lock people up for life who didn’t deserve that punishment, Wagstaffe said of the reasons Fox opposed the law.
“It was a brave act,” Wagstaffe said.
Fox was a genial man, Wagstaffe said.
“Despite being a very important person in our community, he had humility,” Wagstaffe said “He never thought he was better than anybody.”
Josh Bentley, an attorney in San Carlos, spoke at the Hall of Justice in Redwood City about beginning in 1991 as a deputy district attorney for Fox.
“He was just a class act,” Bentley said.
The attorney called Fox “a great, great district attorney — but even a better man.”
Fox was elected district attorney in 1982 despite beginning the campaign as a underdog — a defense attorney running against the chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County.
“Jim worked it very hard,” Wagstaffe said.
In an event known as the “Fox Trot,” the candidate walked from Daly City to Menlo Park over two days.
Attorney Peter Goldscheider, who has practiced law here since the 1970s, said Friday at the Hall of Justice that Fox’s background — which included serving as city attorney for Half Moon Bay — helped shape him.
“Jim had the distinction of doing other things before he was a prosecutor,” Goldscheider said.
Lisa Maguire, chief defender in the Private Defender Program for San Mateo County, worked for Fox as a deputy district attorney after graduating from law school in 1992.
“Jim had the right approach to the job,” Maguire said. “He was very good about delegating.”
“He was not a micromanager at all,” she said.
Maguire recalled seeing Fox with his family at Vic’s in San Carlos every Sunday for breakfast.
“He was an absolutely devoted husband, grandfather and friend,” he said.
San Mateo County has had only three district attorneys since 1953 — Keith Sorenson, whom Fox succeeded, and Wagstaffe.
“Each of them has done a good job,” Maguire said.
The decades D.A.’s serve also reflects the nature of San Mateo County, she said.
“It’s not a very political county historically,” Maguire said. “It’s not like San Francisco.”
When Sorenson started as district attorney in the 1950s, District Attorney Wagstaffe recalled, San Mateo County was a much different place with gambling casinos common.
“When Keith came in, this county was totally corrupt,” Wagstaffe said. “He cleaned it up.”
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, honoring Fox in 2011 for his seven terms as district attorney, recalled their interest in laws requiring parents to pay child support.
Fox spoke about seeing about a local Realtor’s ad that depicted the man as dedicated to his family and showed him with his new wife and their children on a beach.
The Realtor was failing to support his former wife and their children, Fox recounted.
“Jim wasn’t afraid to name names,” Speier had said. “The Realtor paid up.”
Fox benefited from his deep ties to San Mateo County, Wagstaffe said.
“When you have your roots in this region, you truly care about everything that affects the county,” Wagstaffe said.
Kevin Dunleavy was a sophomore at Serra when Fox spoke about the law at a career day event at the high school.
“He talked about the nobility of the profession,” Dunleavy recalled.
Now chief assistant district attorney in Alameda County, the 1980 graduate of Serra said Fox was highly regarded by his peers.
“He enjoyed a wonderful reputation statewide for being the ultimate prosecutor,” Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy recalled Fox talking about hitchhiking home from Serra, where his father drove him in the mornings.
“That was not an easy path to get back to Half Moon Bay,” Dunleavy said.
The long treks to attend Serra were worth it for Fox, the Alameda County prosecutor added.
“There’s a community and brotherhood at an-all boys high school,” said Dunleavy. “He benefited from it.”
Barry Thornton, president of Serra, said in an email that Fox “exemplified everything we would hope about what it means to be a Serra Padre.”
“His deep faith, his commitment to family, his service to the community, his profound integrity and his unparalleled work ethic all gave witness to a man of tremendous character,” Thornton said. “Jim’s words, actions and values all matched.”
The high school honored Fox in 2002 with the Junipero Serra Award, the school’s most prestigious award given to an alumnus with unparalleled character.
Fox, a graduate of the University of San Francisco and its School of Law, recently returned to celebrate his 50th law school reunion, Dean Susan Freiwald of the law school said in an email.
“Jim’s caring and strength of character shone through each time we met,” Freiwald said. “Our USF Law community mourns his passing.”
Deborah Kemper, executive director of the San Mateo County Bar Association, recalled calling Fox recently after a speaker canceled before a major event.
“He was sympathetic, kind and thoughtful, and he didn’t hesitate to stand in and serve the community once again,” Kemper said in an email.
“Jim will certainly be missed,” she said, “but his influence on this bar community lives on.”
D.A. Wagstaffe recalled Friday how after taking office he had called Fox hundreds of times — and the insights that followed.
“He remained my mentor,” Wagstaffe said, “even in retirement.”
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