SOME PEOPLE can tell a joke, and some people can't.

Francis Biunno, who had a long and distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist, just couldn't bring one off.

"He'd give away the punch line, or mess it up some way," said his wife, the former Jule Kleinz.

And, oh yes, he was a terrible fisherman.

"He'd go out on a fishing boat from the shore, I'd pack a nice lunch," his wife said. "And he'd come back with nothing."

But Francis Biunno could be forgiven these unimportant inadequacies because he was a highly regarded lawyer, prosecutor and judge in Philadelphia for nearly 50 years.

Francis A. Biunno, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge for 20 years, former assistant district attorney and private-practice lawyer who generously lent his legal talents to help neighbors with pro bono work, a devoted husband, father and grandfather, died Nov. 30 of complications of dementia. He was 87 and lived in Middletown Township, Delaware County.

Fran served as a commander in the Navy Reserve for more than 20 years and had the distinction of receiving a commendation from the Italian Navy.

That came about in 1966 when an Italian ship arrived at the Philadelphia Naval Base and Francis Biunno, who spoke fluent Italian, made the visitors comfortable and welcome as an interpreter.

The action was typical of Fran's generous nature, and his long commitment to helping others, whether with legal advice, as a judge devoted to fair play and justice, or simply as a good friend.

Francis Biunno grew up in Southwest Philadelphia. He graduated from West Catholic High School, in 1943, and went on to receive undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

He joined the Naval Reserve while in college. He was in training for active duty when World War II ended and his training was canceled.

He met his future wife at the former Good Shepherd Church, at 67th Street and Chester Avenue. They were married in 1965.

He worked as a private-practice lawyer and as an assistant district attorney before being elected to the Common Pleas Court in 1974.

"He was highly regarded for his commitment to justice and fair interpretation of the law," his wife said. "He always got along well with prosecutors and lawyers he dealt with as a judge."

He retired after two terms in 1994.

"Fran will always be remembered as a devoted family man with steadfast morals and values who was known for his engaging stories, encyclopedic knowledge, poorly told jokes and sometimes cantankerous spirit," his wife said.

This latter quality manifested itself when Fran encountered something that just wasn't done to his satisfaction.

"Everything had to be done right," his wife said. "If it wasn't, he could be cantankerous."

When the family was living in Penrose Park, in Southwest Philadelphia, Fran became a successful gardener - "With my help," Jule said - proud of his tomatoes and peppers.

"He didn't like to weed," Jule said.

To say that Fran was an avid reader would be a gross understatement. He consumed books with a voracious appetite, all nonfiction, historical and military topics, accumulating walls of books.

"He read constantly, but he didn't like stories," his wife said. "He wanted truth."

Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Regina; a son, Francis; and three grandchildren.

Services: Funeral Mass 11 a.m. Thursday at St. John Chrysostom Church, 615 S. Providence Rd., Wallingford. Friends may call at 9:30 a.m. Burial will be in Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon.