Bar News - February 9, 2007
‘See Ya’, Babe’
By: Timothy Coughlin
On Jan. 5, 2007, Strafford County Deputy Sheriff and Strafford Superior Court Chief Bailiff Roland ‘Babe’ Chagnon passed away at the age of 77 after a long illness. Chagnon began his career at the superior court in 1985 after retiring from the US Postal Service. In December 2006, Courtroom Four was named in his honor.
One day in the fall of 1991, as a young Devine Millimet associate, I drove to my first-ever hearing, which was held “up in Strafford.” Although I was simply covering a humdrum pretrial for one of the partners, I was a nervous wreck. Having needlessly studied every page of the file the night before and arriving over an hour early at the courthouse; I went up to the second floor and it was there I first encountered Babe preparing for the day’s business. He was a small-yet-handsome man with an engaging smile. He somehow exhibited both an excess of energy and a calm composure. He wore a shirt and tie, and the standard issue bailiff’s burgundy jacket, which he complimented with sky-blue slacks and black loafers. “You here for a hearing?” he asked. After introductions, he advised me that there was “nothing wrong with being early.” He then told me a story about how one of the judges once humbled a young lawyer for being late to “his courtroom.”
So began my relationship with Babe. My eight-minute pretrial concluded and as I walked the length of the second-floor corridor, I observed Babe assisting two “pro sayers” as he called them. He treated the thousands he assisted like gold. It was as though Babe was running a family-owned neighborhood business. Babe could put a terrified divorcing unemployed mother with her two crying kids pulling at her sweatshirt at relative ease. He was equally adept at authoritatively, yet so reverently, advising an angry and hung-over defendant of a domestic violence petition that he should: take off his baseball cap; remove the gum; stand when addressing the Court; and just tell the judge what happened. Babe’s dedication to his “customers” and the business of the court is only one of the many reasons why Courtroom Four was justly named after him.
Babe died last month. Strafford just isn’t the same. Babe conveyed nothing but the utmost admiration for all lawyers, court employees, judges and jurors. You knew his favorites, but his authentic respect for the system prevented him from disparaging any court personnel—they were family. Babe was at the same time quick-witted, appropriately opinionated, tremendously perceptive, and a world-class storyteller.
Over the years, I’d occasionally ask him about other attorneys, attempting to get the skinny on my opponents. He’d say things from “you’d be smart to buckle up your chin strap with that guy” to “ah, he just mails it in”; or, from “she’s one of the best around” to “not the judges’ favorite.”
It was Babe’s stories that gave you insight into what he thought of people. He wouldn’t simply tell you his opinions. He’d instead tell you an anecdotal account and let you decide. He spoke highly of almost everyone, even “Republicans,” unless they were either disrespectful or pretentious. Pretentiousness particularly perturbed Babe. But I realized over the years that even those sorts never knew what Babe actually thought of them. He treated the lawyers, jurors, litigants and others visiting Strafford like we treat only our favorite clients.
As I was leaving the courthouse that first autumn day, Babe noticed and made sure to say “See ya’, Tim.” That was over a decade and a half ago, and ever since I always took pleasure in going back to visit with Babe. It’s ironic that a Strafford County bailiff would be the first to make me feel like a truly welcomed member of the Bar. After relocating to the Seacoast and going “up to Strafford” more often, I found myself leaving early so I’d make sure I had a few minutes to talk with Babe, before the distractive pace of the court’s business took us our separate ways.
I really miss Babe. Before his departure, whenever I drove to Strafford, foremost in my mind was seeing Roland “Babe” Chagnon. I couldn’t wait to see him. I never told anyone that before. I neglected to tell Babe before he passed. Then again, he probably knew that.
Timothy C. Coughlin is managing partner of Coughlin Rainboth Murphy & Lown of Portsmouth.