Former State Senator John Dunne, a towering figure in GOP politics who served 23 years before his appointment to help lead the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Justice Department, has died. He was 90.

Dunne, a lawyer and former longtime board member of The Evangelist, died Nov. 1 of cancer at his home in Chatham. He represented the Sixth District (Long Island) from 1966-89 and rose to become second-in-command of the chamber.

During the 1971 Attica riots, Dunne, then chairman of the Corrections Committee, entered the prison with Assemblyman Arthur Eve to negotiate with inmates and seek a peaceful resolution for them and their hostages.

Dunne, who later became instrumental in addressing prisoner reform issues, criticized fellow Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for failing to come himself, saying the dispute could have ended without bloodshed.

“John was honest, truthful, direct and always did what he thought was right and not what was politically expedient,” said Denise Dunne, his wife of 62 years.

The couple had four children: Joanne Dunne Murphy, 60; Peter, 58; Timothy, 56; and Hillary Dunne Ferrone, 54.

“He was as fine a man in his private life as he was in his public life,” Ferrone said. “He led by example.”

A graduate of Georgetown University and Yale Law School, Dunne served in private practice for several years as a partner in the law firm of Rivkin, Radler, Dunne & Bayh. He later worked as senior counsel to the firm of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP in Albany.

“John was the consummate professional, filled with both a love of the law and compassion for those who were most affected by its application,” Whiteman Osterman & Hanna said in a statement. “He brought the best out in all of us and humbly served as an inspiration for any woman or man lucky enough to find themselves in his orbit.”

While Dunne helped write the Nixon-era Rockefeller Drug Laws, he later became an outspoken advocate for their eventual reform, serving as chair of the State Capital Defender Office, Task Force on the Future of Probation and director of the State Office of Indigent Legal Services.

“Senator Dunne was a gentleman and a reminder of a much more civil era in politics. But I think his greatest legacy is his example as the rare politician who was not afraid to admit error or to change his mind,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference. “After sponsoring the Rockefeller Drug Laws in the early 1970s in a well-intended effort to address the scourge of drug addiction, he reversed course later in life as the draconian nature of the harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences even for non-violent, low-level offenders became clear.

“To his eternal credit, Senator Dunne was a leading and respected voice for repeal, which carried tremendous weight with legislators, especially with his fellow Republicans. We don’t see that kind of courage in politics much anymore, at any level. He will be missed.”

From 1990-93, Dunne worked in Washington, D.C., as the assistant attorney general for civil rights after his appointment by President George H.W. Bush. In a statement, the State Bar Association called Dunne “an admired statesman, respected scholar and a giant in the law and politics.” Along with his wife and four children, Dunne is survived by sons-in-law Thomas Murphy and Christopher Ferrone; daughter-in-law Wendy Dunne and nine grandchildren. The family will hold a private funeral service.

This obituary first appeared in Newsday and is reprinted with permission.