When Chief U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster was a teenager in Brownsville, he took off from school one day to check out a trial at the Fayette County courthouse.
He wanted to see Paul Simmons, a black lawyer, in action.
Mr. Simmons, who won that case, went on to become the first black federal judge in Pittsburgh in 1978.
"My mother let me take off from school that day because she felt it was necessary for me to see a black man doing something important," Judge Lancaster recalled in 1987. "When I got to the courtroom, the only two blacks in there were Judge Simmons and his client. His legal arguments were outstanding. I was impressed. I said, 'Wow!' "
The judge, who spoke of Judge Simmons' influence at a courthouse event in February honoring the 91-year-old jurist, followed his example, joining the federal bench in 1993 and in 2009 becoming the first black chief judge in U.S. District Court.
Judge Lancaster died Wednesday of hypertensive heart disease at his home in Stanton Heights, where he lived alone. He was 63 and had long suffered from health problems, including complications from diabetes.
Courthouse regulars had noticed he was having some trouble walking, although he just completed a trial last week and was to preside over a naturalization ceremony today.
"He was in bad shape," said his long-time friend, attorney Wendell Freeland. "The last time I saw him I hardly recognized him. He didn't talk to anybody about his condition."
Those close to him at the courthouse were devastated.
"We came in at the same time," said Judge Donetta Ambrose, who joined the federal bench on the same day and was his predecessor as chief judge. "I want people to know how bright he was. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He was a treasured friend."
Gov. Tom Corbett, who started working with Judge Lancaster at the Allegheny County district attorney's office on the same day in 1976, said in an email that he was proud to see his friend rise through the ranks.
At Judge Lancaster's invitation, the governor is to appear today for a special naturalization ceremony at the courthouse over which the judge was scheduled to preside.
New Chief Judge Sean McLaughlin will handle that duty.
As chief, Judge Lancaster was head administrator for the district, advising the other judges and overseeing budgets and personnel. One of his legacies is the renovated 1930s-era courthouse, an $87 million project completed in 2006 which he supervised with Shalom Baranes Architects and the General Services Administration.
Behind the bench, he was generally regarded as even-handed.
While often reserved to the point of shyness, at least with strangers, he had a reputation as a "people's judge" who could handle any type of case with an informality that didn't match the often-antiseptic atmosphere of federal court.
He sometimes appeared in court without his robes, favoring a sweater, and generally did not make a fuss over decorum.
Like many of his colleagues, he chafed at the formulaic criminal guidelines imposed by Congress and approached cases with an old-school common touch.
Once, when the daughter of former Pittsburgh Police Chief Earl Buford was convicted of staging a robbery at a bank where she was a teller, his rebuke reduced her to tears.
"What you did was stupid," the judge scolded her in that 2002 case. "Your father was probably embarrassed. I've known him for 30 years. Don't you ever pull something like this again!"
Yet in the end, he gave her a light sentence in a halfway house instead of prison.
"Everyone is entitled to a break," he said. "You've had your break. If you come back here for any reason, I'm sending you to a federal penitentiary."
That case was typical of how he operated.
"In my experience, the one thing he really tried to do was strive to be conscientious and fair in his sentencing," said Bruce Teitelbaum, a former federal prosecutor. "He really tried to tailor his sentencing to the individual."
Attorney J. Kerrington Lewis said the judge was "one of the nicest men" on the bench in federal or state court.
"He always let everyone express their opinions," he said. "He was basically a fine gentleman who will be sorely missed by both sides, because he was so fair."
His former law clerks remained devoted to him for years afterwards because he looked out for them.
Judge Cathy Bissoon, who clerked for him in 1994 and 1995, said the judge was a mentor to her.
"He's the reason I'm on the bench right now," she said. "He was always my champion and advocate. He was a great judge. He was never a warm and fuzzy person, but to me he was like my dad."
Attorney Matthew Logue, who clerked in 2002 and 2003, said the judge was a wonderful boss. "He used to say this will be the best job you'll ever have in the legal profession, and it was true," he said. "He really wanted to give young lawyers an opportunity."
Born in Brownsville in 1949, Judge Lancaster was the son of Arabelle and Paul Lancaster. Even after he became a judge, he always spoke fondly of Brownsville.
"It's a small place where everybody knows everybody," he once said. "My family goes back generations ... to the time of slavery. Everybody who lives there has lived there a long time."
He earned his undergraduate degree at Slippery Rock State College in 1971 and his law degree in 1974 from the University of Pittsburgh, then went to work as regional counsel for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, handling civil rights and discrimination cases.
"I remember the first big case I argued," he told a Pitt Law publication in 2009. "We got a local public golf course to accept women members for the first time."
He joined the district attorney's office in 1976 and tried some 100 cases before leaving in 1978 to go into private practice.
While working as a private lawyer in the 1980s, he and his wife, Tyra, had their only child, Matt, now 31. He and Tyra later divorced.
In 1987 Judge Lancaster was tapped by the district judges for a U.S. magistrate's post; he was the first black magistrate here.
Six years later, President Clinton nominated him for a seat on the bench vacated by Timothy Lewis, and he became a fixture in the courthouse.
"We talked almost every day," said Judge Ambrose, whose courtroom is next to his. "It's a very sad day for me."
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Thursday.
An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date for Judge Lancaster's college graduation.
Torsten Ove: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rich Lord contributed. First Published April 26, 2013 4:00 AM