Paying my respects and to honor the life and career of Judge William Wilkes
I am going to devote this month’s president’s column to paying my respects and to honor the life and career of Judge William Wilkes. He was a man who, like me, loved Clay High School, the Florida Gators, Bar associations and serving his community.
When each of us wraps up her or his career, we can only hope that people say about us what has been said of the life and career of Judge Wilkes, who passed away July 20.
Judge Wilkes was a dedicated family man who loved his community; a great mentor to lawyers and judges; universally respected by prosecutors and defense attorneys; and a man of integrity, who treated people with dignity, fairness and respect, who knew the ins and outs of every case – sometimes more than the lawyers.
Judge Wilkes loved Clay County and it loved him back, returning him to the bench in every election he sought.
He knew his community inside and out and devoted his life to serving it. He was a founding member and president of the Clay County Bar Association and played a pivotal role in ensuring the Clay County Courthouse was built.
He was awarded seemingly every honor from every association in Clay County, from the Rotary Club to the Cattlemen’s Association, the Masons to the Gator Club.
It has been rightly said that Judge Wilkes WAS Clay County.
Yet, though he was the longest serving judge in our circuit, many lawyers, like me, did not have the privilege of practicing before him or getting to know him.
Division assignments early in my prosecutorial career and then chance and circumstance meant that I did not get to know a man many of my friends and colleagues have described as “the best judge I ever appeared in front of,” who “taught a generation of lawyers how to practice law.” I know I missed out, as many of you likely did.
No doubt our circuit has been blessed with many great judges. And yet, when people speak of Judge Wilkes, it is with familiarity, respect and reverence seldom bestowed on an elected official in today’s world.
Perhaps it is because he was “Clay County’s judge” in a time when the citizens and lawyers knew the judges better, when our communities were a bit smaller and when people had more time to get to know their community leaders.
Perhaps it is because, as his colleagues have said, Judge Wilkes never belittled or berated lawyers in front of their clients, would not let anyone in the system be taken advantage of, was a friend and mentor to lawyers and judges alike, ran his courtroom “like it is supposed to be run,” and was, simply put, “easy to love.”
Though I did not have the privilege of knowing or learning from Judge Wilkes, I still can learn from his example, as we all can.
Our paths may not have crossed, but I would do well to keep following his.