The people in the magistrate court system old enough to remember Gilbert McCrowey, only the second black judge ever in York County, still use the word “great” to describe him. The word “honorable” comes up. Always used is the word “fair.”
“Fair to everyone before him, which is the measure of all of us,” said longtime Magistrate Judge Bob Davenport.
Frederick Gilbert McCrowey, who died Sunday at 78, was county magistrate at night from 1987 until 1995. In those days, that meant court in York or Clover or Rock Hill or Fort Mill – sometimes in the wee hours.
“A man with great common sense, a judge who had courage and was fair to all people regardless of color,” said Cotton Howell, York County Emergency Management director for almost three decades, but before that the night-time magistrate.
Howell trained McCrowey, and knew that McCrowey was a man of integrity early on.
“In those days, any black person appointed to a job had to get past the accepted idea by too many that a person like Gilbert was a token appointment,” Howell said. “The court system was changing from the good ol’ boy system in those days, and he helped change it.”
McCrowey’s wife of 53 years, Elizabeth, said the family understood that a judicial appointment made her husband part of a group that had been closed for too long.
But what mattered to Gilbert McCrowey was right and wrong.
“My husband stood up for justice,” she said, “for all people.”
But few know that McCrowey, a graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans who worked for NASA, only came home after the floods of Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
In that flood, McCrowey took his family –Elizabeth and four small children – out through a window after the levees breached, onto the roof of his home. He swam miles to retrieve a boat. He rescued not just his family, but dozens of others trapped by the floodwaters.
“After he saved us, he just kept going back and back and back,” said daughter Ann McCrowey Mickle, who has been practicing law for more than 25 years and is a former judge herself.
“I was just a little girl then, but when your father does something such as that – puts others before himself, and before his own safety and his own life – you can never forget it.”
The family had been one of the first families to worship at St. Mary Catholic Church, Rock Hill’s first integrated parish on Crawford Road. It is at St. Mary where the brothers of the Oratory Catholics pushed McCrowey to attend college in New Orleans.
After college he was drafted, became an officer in the Army, then worked for NASA. After the hurricane, with so much he had worked for gone, McCrowey and his young family came back to Rock Hill where he had grown up.
McCrowey ran the legendary Midway Grill and Midway Grocery on Crawford Road, as well as other businesses that his brother and others in the family owned. McCrowey later opened and ran a bail bond business, which gave him entry to the court system.
When York County needed a magistrate, he accepted the call to serve and gained the respect of law enforcement and defendants and lawyers alike. Magistrates not only decide bonds, but preside over misdemeanor cases and sign arrest warrants.
And as the sole black judge during his entire time in York County, and one of only a handful in the state, McCrowey helped change an entire system of courts to encompass all of York County’s residents.
The funeral will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Mary.
“Gilbert was a great, great man,” said Brother David Boone, who has been at the Oratory and St. Mary since the 1950s. “Generous, humble, and giving.”
Gilbert McCrowey earned the title, “Your honor.”
“My father was a man whose life knew no boundaries,” Ann McCrowey Mickle said. “As a judge, he believed in the stewardship of the position. He believed in fairness, in justice for all.”