It was New Year’s Eve, a night to say farewell to the past and usher in the future.
And there they were, two friends with a past of helping offenders get a second chance spending time making plans for the future.
Fourth Judicial Circuit Judge Virginia Norton and Richard McKissick had many of these talks over the years they worked together on the Developing Adults with Necessary Skills program.
The course provides training to inmates in the Duval County Jail to help them get their GEDs, life-skills training and transitional counseling. It also has lowered recidivism rates.
Norton’s work with DAWN is a key factor in her being selected for the 2017 Chief Justice’s Distinguished Judicial Service Award, which she will receive Jan. 19 at the Florida Supreme Court.
McKissick handpicked Norton as the next-generation leader for the program he started many years before.
And even though McKissick was in declining health at a rehabilitation center that December 2015 night, they still talked about the future.
Starting of a friendship
Norton and McKissick had frequently seen each other when she worked for the General Counsel’s Office from 1998-2008 and he was a frequent visitor to City Hall.
“We’d always kind of wave to one another,” Norton said, but they didn’t know each other.
They met during her unsuccessful campaign for Duval County Court judge in 2006, when she went to visit McKissick’s family’s church, The Bethel Church.
His brother, Bishop Rudolph McKissick Sr., led the powerful Downtown institution at the time. (He has since retired and his son, Rudolph Jr., is senior pastor.)
After she was elected to the circuit bench in 2008, she often saw Richard McKissick in the courthouse because of his involvement in re-entry programs for prisoners.
“We became closer and closer and closer,” Norton said.
She learned a lot of from McKissick, she said, particularly how he balanced holding people accountable for their actions with great kindness and compassion.
“I’m still working to emulate that,” the judge said.
Norton said McKissick often let DAWN members know he expected them to do better than they were doing.
The program’s classes begin with the pledge of allegiance because McKissick believed patriotism should be taught in the jail.
Another personal touch from McKissick is each classroom has a poster created by him that says, “I am here because I broke the law.”
But he believed in second chances, as does Norton. And they wanted more people to have those opportunities.
Planning for future
McKissick and Norton’s New Year’s Eve discussion focused on plans for the following week. Afterward, McKissick’s brother came by and the three of them prayed together.
Hours later, early on New Year’s Day, Richard McKissick passed away at age 90.
Norton didn’t want the inmates in the DAWN program to hear about his death from anyone else, so she personally told them as a group.
It was the hardest thing she’d ever done, Norton said.
For a lot of the men, McKissick was the only father figure they had ever had, she said.
They were heartbroken.
“Jail is not a good place to cry,” Norton said.
She understands their heartache.
“I was telling someone yesterday, there’s not a day that I don’t miss him,” Norton said last week, fighting back tears.
But, she said, there was an inspirational aspect to their last discussion.
“I can’t think of a better way of leaving this world than thinking of ways to help other people,” Norton said.
Carrying the mission forward
Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr. believes his uncle’s program is in good hands with Norton.
He said the judge assured him at his uncle’s memorial that the work he began would continue and grow.
“I took her at her word because I know how passionate she is,” he said. “And more importantly, I know how passionate she is about keeping Richard’s legacy alive.”
Norton said an expansion of DAWN’s after-care program is underway and more growth is coming, though she couldn’t share specifics.
“We foresee some really great opportunities coming forward with some local partnerships,” she said, like the one the group has with the Delores Barr Weaver Center.
As the program expands, it will do so as the Richard A. McKissick Memorial DAWN Program — a name change that came after his death.
McKissick Jr. said he instinctively knew Norton was the responsible for the change. She said she shares the credit with Damion Cook, grant administrator for the city.
Richard McKissick often left notes for Norton, some personal, some about the program.
After he died, she found one in her car about things she should be doing.
McKissick was still driving the discussion about Norton’s future.
Snippets from nominating letters for Norton award
“In my many years of practicing law, I know of few who have so distinguished themselves by serving the less fortunate in our community while still being one of our most effective, respected and hardworking jurists. She is a role model for the Bar and brings community admiration and respect to the Bench.”
“It is rare to find a lawyer, much less a judge, who will not only help the downtrodden but also visit among them to better serve them. In so doing, Judge Norton not only helps the least of us, but also does great credit to our profession and offers an example that we should all try to emulate.”
“In 2015, when I assumed the role of Chief Judge, I was very excited when my colleagues elected Judge Norton as the Administrative Judge of the Civil Division. I am blessed to be able to rely upon her as I have to make tough decisions. Judge Norton is a pillar of grace and calm who does not shy away from any challenge or controversy. She is a true leader.”
Chief Judge Mark Mahon
“Judge Norton and Richard McKissick shared a spirit for helping and believing in others whom many people have already given up on. While always holding people accountable for their actions, they worked together in order that many people might have a second chance in life.”
Bishop Rudoph McKissick Sr. and Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr.