Morton Willen

Final Resting Place

12:30 pm
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Northport Rural Cemetery
Sandy Hollow Road
Northport, New York, United States

Obituary of Morton I. Willen

Morton I. Willen, longtime Northport resident and former Family Court Judge, dies at 96

By Liz Willen


Morton I. Willen, a former Suffolk County Family Court Judge and longtime Northport resident, died on Feb. 26 at the age of 96, just 18 days after the death of his wife, Mildred. They would have been married for 75 years in June. He is survived by three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

His many loves included the law, golf, growing vegetables and cooking for his family. He was an avid New York Mets, Giants and Knicks fan through all their ups and downs. He also adored ballet, opera and jazz and the comedian Mel Brooks; he knew every line of the iconic "2000-year-old man," albums by Brooks and Carl Reiner and often quoted them – with proper credit.

Born in 1928, Morton – or Morty, as he was known – grew up in the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants who arrived from Poland in 1925. His parents operated an upholstery shop in the Bronx and a bungalow colony in the Catskills, where he spent summers as "Ice-cream Morty."

It was here that he met his future wife Mildred Reich, known as Millie. "We spoke, we danced," he wrote in his memoirs. "Yes, she would like to drive into Monticello and have a corned-beef sandwich. Afterwards, we drove to Kiamesha Lake, parked and looked at the lake, the moon and the stars."

They married in 1949: she was 19 and he was 20. Morty attended City College, relishing opportunity his parents did not have. "We were not a carefree, frivolous generation," he wrote in his memoirs. "Our parents didn't have money. We could go to college for free to do all the things our parents could only dream of doing."

Morty enlisted in the U.S. Army for 18 months in 1946 after his sophomore year, serving in the 24th Infantry Division in Kokura, Japan. After he graduated from college, his uncle Benny gave him a career recommendation: "Morty, you talk good. Be a lawyer." He listened to Uncle Benny's advice and attended St. John University's Law school in Queens on the G.I. bill and practiced law on Long Island for many years. He lived in Levittown and Huntington before moving to Northport in 1967, where he and Millie restored an old sea-captain's house that had been divided into four separate apartments. Morty became a Suffolk County Family Court Judge in 1977, and later, an acting State Supreme Court Justice in the matrimonial division. He made history when he awarded custody of a 13-year-old boy to a gay father in 1986, the first ruling of its kind in New York State. He was proud of his decision.  "As time has gone on and as acceptance of gay parenthood has increased, my small piece in its evolution continues to give me a lot of satisfaction," he later wrote.

His time on the bench and later as a judicial hearing officer gave him insight into painful realities that split families apart, including addiction, child abuse and neglect. He also presided over their most memorable events: such as finalizing adoptions, "with all the joy and happiness it brought when families came into his courtroom with their children to sign papers," along with naturalization ceremonies, when immigrants became U.S. citizens. On those occasions, there was never a dry eye in the house, he recalled.

In his spare time, Morty also relished included performing numerous weddings in his capacity as a justice of the peace for friends and members of his extended family, most recently his granddaughter Arianna in 2019. Morty was always forthright about his struggles, along with his successes; at his 90 th -birthday party, he urged his children and grandchildren to learn from failure, telling them: "You can bounce back. We become tougher." He added words that resonated with all of them: "Never give up on yourself. Be resilient. Be persistent. Have humility. There is nothing wrong with being human." They are words his family will always live by.

Survivors include his daughter Amy Spiros (Chris) and her children Arianna, (Luke) Matthew and Callie, all of Northport; great grandchildren Benjamin and Miles; his daughter Liz Willen (Greg) of Brooklyn, grandsons Damon and Brendan, son Joe (Kim) of Northport, and children Rachel, Hannah and Grace, along with his older sister Esther Mason of Los Angeles and numerous nieces and nephews. Special thanks to Janet Bankinson of the Gurwin Health Care System for extraordinary care. Burial was private. His family is planning a memorial in the spring. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to the Northport Veteran's Hospital and its Visual Impairment Center or the Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative.

Share Your Memory of