Obituary: M. Bruce McCullough / Bankruptcy judge credited with keeping Penguins in city

July 1944 - Nov. 23, 2010

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U.S. Bankruptcy Court Chief Judge M. Bruce McCullough, the man many people credit with keeping the Penguins playing hockey in Pittsburgh, died Tuesday morning. He was 66.

A plain-spoken, no-nonsense judge who liked to cut to the heart of issues, Judge McCullough was born in Princeton, N.J., the oldest of three sons of Yale-educated parents. His father, Malcolm, whom he was named after, was a Presbyterian preacher, and the family moved often, living in Connecticut, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri and China before finally settling in the small town of Havre, Mont., when he was in high school. Judge McCullough, whose heroes included gun-slinging cowboys in the mold of Clint Eastwood characters, always would consider Montana his boyhood home and earned a reputation as being a sort of "frontier judge."

After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1969, Judge McCullough accepted a job with Buchanan Ingersoll, a small Pittsburgh law firm at the time with fewer than three dozen attorneys.

Specializing in bankruptcy wasn't a career goal, but he was tapped as lead attorney in two major corporate bankruptcies in the late 1980s -- Allegheny International and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. The cases involved numerous high-priced attorneys arguing the claims of hundreds of creditors.

Over the course of his career, he would represent both sides in bankruptcy cases. Other clients included Union National Bank; LeNature's, a bottler in Latrobe; Pittsburgh Brewing Co.; as well as countless auto-body shops, struggling pizzerias and working people trying to keep their household goods.

"His love and his background was commercial law," said Douglas A. Campbell, a prominent Pittsburgh bankruptcy attorney who went before Judge McCullough numerous times. "He made a wonderful switch to entities that owed the money, becoming a debtors' lawyer. It was like watching someone who's always played offense, go over and be a star on defense. And he did a wonderful job."

"He had an amazing amount of compassion, particularly for individuals in bankruptcy," said Bob Bernstein, managing partner of Bernstein Law Firm, Downtown. "He wouldn't put up with a lot of foolishness, but he always would allow parties a continuance to work out an issue."

When a job on the bankruptcy court opened here in 1995, he was intrigued despite the pay cut he faced.

After consulting with his wife, Kathy, whom he had met when she was a secretary in a Wheeling-Pitt case, he decided to don the judge's robe.

Some lawyers who went before him were put off by his blunt and forthright manner. But many of those who clashed with him, Mr. Campbell said, were guilty of being unprepared or seeking needless delays.

"He had a strong sense of right and wrong, and it sometimes reflected itself in a lack of patience with technicalities. He wanted to cut through and resolve the issues," Mr. Campbell said.

They were characteristics that suited him perfectly for entering the quagmire of the local professional hockey team's bankruptcy in the late 1990s, when U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Bernard Markovitz asked Judge McCullough to act as mediator.

"There was a deadline and the Penguins matter had to get fixed, or the NHL was not going to include the team on the schedule for the season that began in the fall of 1999," said Mr. Campbell, who represented Mario Lemieux.

"So, we were there in 1998, and it was clear somebody very powerful and effective would have to be in charge of forging a consensus among all the parties involved.

"He worked as hard as I've ever seen anybody work for a good eight months, nonstop. He loved it. He worked the phones and brought people into his chambers. He kept track of every detail, and he brought his very powerful personality to bear on the situation. He understood every party involved in that case and what they needed to agree. The lenders, the league, the labor unions and the local government people.

"But for Bruce McCullough, the Pittsburgh Penguins would not be playing hockey in this city today. There was no one else who could have made it happen in the time allowed. I think he was born to save the Penguins."

Judge McCullough, in an interview after the franchise was saved, said, "The Penguins mediation was the most fun. If they were all Penguins things, I'd [be a full-time mediator] in a minute, but we don't have many Penguins type of cases."

Funeral arrangements were pending.


Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com .


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