But that is the case for Tom Principe, who has had an accomplished career as a lawyer in both public and private practice, and another long and distinguished career in service to his country in the Army.
“I was lucky to have two careers,” Principe said. “I had my military career, but I also had my civilian life and they dovetailed beautifully.”
On March 30, Principe will be presented with the Thomas More Award at the 6th Annual Bishop Ignatius Catanello Memorial Dinner in Douglaston, which raises money to provide tuition for students in need at Cathedral Preparatory and Seminary High School in Elmhurst.
The award is named for Saint Thomas More, an English lawyer, author and philosopher. More was executed for treason in 1535 after refusing to acknowledge King Henry VII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England over the pope, or recognize the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
As treasurer of the Queens County Catholic Lawyers Guild, Principe helps organize a dinner every May at which the group presents its own award named for the canonized lawyer.
“There is no higher award a lawyer can receive then the St. Thomas More award,” Principe said of his upcoming honor. “And to have it at a dinner honoring Bishop Catanello, who was so devoted to service and helped so many people, it means a lot to me to be a part of that.”
Principe joined the ROTC when he entered law school at St. John’s University in the early 70s.
“It was a great opportunity for me because I was able to complete law school before going into the service,” the Flushing native said. “As soon as I graduated, I went on active duty.
This was just as the Vietnam War was coming to an end. Principe was on active duty for six months before he was assigned to the Reserves and put in charge of the 237th Maintenance Company stationed is his own backyard at Fort Totten.
“I think is was just a happy coincidence that they needed young lieutenants there,” he joked.
While he was serving in the Army Reserves, Principe was also serving his home borough as an assistant district attorney in the Queens DA’s office, one of then-district attorney Nicholas Ferraro’s first hires in 1974.
Principe would leave the office in 1979 as Deputy Chief of the Supreme Court Trial Bureau, but during his time in the Homicide Bureau, he met a fellow young lawyer named Randy Eng, who encouraged Principe to join him as a Judge Advocate General, or JAG, lawyer in the Army, which Principe did in 1976.
Eng will introduce Principe when he receives his award at the memorial dinner next month.
“I found my niche,” he said. “I was a lawyer, and it was always a goal of mine to be an Army JAG lawyer.”
Principe was stationed at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street and Park Avenue, where he still serves as president of the 7th Regiment Veterans group.
As a JAG lawyer, he would counsel commanders on issues related to discipline and other matters, but he also served as an attorney for many of the uniformed men.
“I would have a legal clinic on Tuesday nights,” Principe recalled. “I would have soldiers come to me with criminal law problems, matrimonial law problems, custody problems. Some were in debt and owed money, it wasn’t only military disciplinary problems.
“I had one guy who didn’t know how to return a rented car he drove up from Texas to New York in an emergency and the company was out looking for him!” he continued. “For many soldiers, I was the only lawyer they knew. I loved it, I really considered it a privilege.
When Principe let the Queens DA’s office, he went to work as a defense attorney. In more then one case, he found himself squaring off against a malpractice attorney with the improbable name of Thomas Moore (Irish spelling, as Principe point out). The two struck up a friendship over a shared love of long-distance running.
“We would go on 20-mile training runs together,” said Principe, who ran 12 marathons between 1987 and 1998, often finishing in just over three hours. “You can learn a lot about someone running 20 miles.”
In April of 1989, Moore recruited Principe to join him and his wife, Judy Livingston, as a partner at their firm, Kramer, Dillof, Livingston & Moore (KDLM).
“What I do now is I represent parties injured by the negligence of others,” he said. “Our firm does a lot of work on behalf of brain-damaged infants.”
Principe credits his success to the discipline he learned through running, the military and his Catholic education.
“I was a middling student at Monsignor McClancy High School, but I had perseverance,” he said. “I stuck with it, I didn’t give up, and that put me in good stead my whole life.”
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
On the evening of September 10, 2001, Principe returned to his office at KDLM, which at the time was located in the Woolworth Building. From his window he could see the setting sun reflecting off the World Trade Center. It would be the last time he would see the Twin Towers.
“I had to go to Suffolk County on the morning of 9/11, so I saw the plane hit the second tower on television,” he said. “I called my unit right away, and they said ‘you’ve been activated’ and to go the Park Avenue Armory.”
Later that afternoon, Principe was in uniform and by 4 o’clock he was at Ground Zero. He spent the next three months on active duty, splitting his time between the Armory and his Long Island home.
“We did a lot of security and we helped with the supplies,” he said. “It was very meaningful to be able to participate, it meant a lot to me.”
Principe also used his legal skills to author several important memoranda concerning how military personnel should engage civilians and others at Ground Zero, as well as guidelines on the use of force that were carried by soldiers on patrol.
He also helped the enlisted men and women who were called into active duty with issues they were facing with their employers in the private sector.
“Believe it or not, employers were objecting to their soldiers leaving after the first week,” Principe said. “There were situations where there were threats to their jobs.”
He also did a lot of morale boosting.
“The chaplain and I would go to Ground Zero together,” he said. “We joked that we were an all-purpose team, whether you had spiritual or legal problems.”
Principe was also in a position to help his firm. After the attacks, KDLM moved to Garden City, and on nights he was going back to his home on Long Island, he would go to the Woolworth Building and retrieve important papers and drop them off at the temporary office.
“There was no power in the building, but if I had the time I would walk up 45 flights of stairs with a flashlight and come back down with the checkbook, rolodex, and other files,” he said. “The office was always so supportive of me being in the Guard, and here it was a critical time that I was called into service and I was able to help the firm.
“My wife jokes that ‘Tom wanted to go places, he wanted to go to Korea, he wanted to go to the Middle East,” Principe said, “but the most significant place they sent me to serve was a block from my office!”
Principe has been married to his wife, Irene, for 27 years. Together they have a daughter Catherine, while Principe has another daughter Theresa from a previous marriage. His wife is the daughter of a lifelong Marine who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, so she knows something about the sacrifices of a military family.
“She had been a tremendous supporter of my military and legal career,” Principe said. “She has been a great source of help and inspiration.”
HONORS & AWARDS
After 33 years of service, in July of 2006 Principe retired from the Army as a Brigadier General. He was presented with the Conspicuous Service Medal from the State of New York and the Legion of Merit award by the Army, an honor usually reserved for enlisted men and rarely given to a JAG lawyer.
In 2016, Principe was part of an inaugural class of 320 inducted in the National ROTC Hall of Fame marking the 100th anniversary of Corps. He and 101 of his fellow inductees were honored at Fort Knox, where Principe had completed his basic training. The first name they read at the induction ceremony was General George Marshall, who authored the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after WWII.
“I said to myself, ‘what am I doing here?’” Principe said. “I don’t feel qualified to be here. I’m in some pretty heady company.”
His professional accolades are almost too numerous to list, but include the St. John’s University School of Law Distinguished Veteran Alumni Award and Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award, the Msgr. McClancy Memorial High School Cor Jesu Award, and the Queens County Catholic Lawyers Guild Man of the Year Award.
FAITH & LAW
“When I went to St. John’s the Vincentian mission was always to help the poor and those in need,” Principe said. “I was able to do that as an assistant district attorney by representing people who were victims of crime or had been taken advantage of and getting them justice.”
Today, he does it by helping people who have been wronged, and who in many cases would not be able to afford legal help. KDLM takes on all of its cases pro-bono, and only collects a fee if there is a settlement.
“A lot of people don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, but they are going to get treatment as good as anyone else,” Principe said. “You can really change somebody’s life by giving them dignity, the medical attention they need, and the ability to care for their family.
“It’s again the Catholic mission of helping those who need help the most,” he added. “You have to have a lot of compassion and understanding of people and their troubles in the work that we do.”
The 6th Annual Bishop Ignatius Catanello Memorial Dinner will take place on March 30 at the Immaculate Conception Center at 72-00 Douglaston Parkway in Douglaston. A 6 p.m. mass will by followed by a dinner dance. Tickets are $75 per person and can be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Checks should be made payable to “Bishop Catanello K of C” and sent to Holy Family Parish, 175-20 74th Avenue, Fresh Meadows, NY, 11366.