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Bar News - April 15, 2015

Court News: County Court Clerks Celebrate Long and Distinguished Careers

Bill McGraw sits in the chair given to him at his retirement party.
Photo by Dan Wise

John Safford holds the plaque that will adorn the jury assembly room.
Photo by Judge Gillian Abramson
Retiring superior court clerks John Safford and Bill McGraw recently received warm send-offs from local attorneys in Hillsborough and Merrimack counties at separate events.

A plaque is to be installed in a jury assembly room named in Safford’s honor at the Hillsborough County North courthouse in Manchester. After several tributes from attorneys and judges, McGraw spoke about his career.

Bill McGraw: Why I Loved My Job

Thank you Congressman, Judge, Justice, Quiet doer of good deeds, and Truly Great American; Chuck Douglas. Chuck, you may not remember it, but my first contact with the NH Bar was in 1970, a time of challenge, unrest and great angst for the country, especially on college campuses, when, as President of the New England College Student Senate, I decided that the student activities fee should do more than fund spring weekend. I retained a local law firm to provide initial representation to any NEC student in need of counsel. That firm was made up of three attorneys who had a small office in Henniker; some of us still remember: Perkins, Douglas and Brock. Thank you too, Judges Smukler, McNamara, and McGuire, Karen Fraizer Kathy McDonald, the Merrimack County Bar Association and all those whose contributions made this evening possible. Thank you all for coming.

It may be a bit inappropriate to quote Phil Ochs at a time like this but: "It is great to be alive when the eulogies are read."

I am truly touched by this evening. I am also a bit embarrassed. My life is an embarrassment of riches. Darby, my fabulous love of 50 years. My amazing daughters, Cate and Sarah, who have taught me so much, enriched my life immeasurably, and shown me things and taken me places I could never have gone on my own. My caring competent sons-in-law, Tyler and Mike. They are both more than any father could want for his daughters. And now five exciting grandchildren; Will, Anna, Darby, Thea and Boden. Who knows what I will learn from them? In addition tonight I have been lauded and lampooned by people I care deeply about for doing a job I absolutely loved. I sincerely feel that I should be giving you thanks for the honor of being allowed to hold the operation of the Merrimack Superior Court in trust for the past 25 years. My life is truly full.

All our lives are marked by the decisions we make. Some good, some bad. Like the time I decided to, surreptitiously, leave a fake cigarette lighter filled with pressurized shaving cream in Judge Mangones' chambers? Bad decision. Funny, but bad. Or the time I arranged for Dr. Roger Fossum to be the speaker for the Manchester Bar Association's dinner meeting at the Bedford Village Inn. Dr. Fossum was the state's medical examiner and he brought a slide show of his work. Another bad decision.

But there were good decisions too. In 1980 I made a decision to leave the practice of law and make my career in court administration. This was not an easy decision for me to make. Darby was pregnant with our second child and we knew the financial rewards of my new position certainly would not equal those offered by private practice. But I was learning that I was more of a problem solver than an advocate and I could see the approaching demands of raising two children, so I made the leap. I could not have made a better choice. Not only did I find the new position exciting and rewarding but I was able to devote precious time to my family. I can now say with pride that as Cate and Sarah grew I was a grateful participant in their lives, never missing a school event, play or game (could have done without T -ball but that's another story.) My involvement in their lives has enriched me and allowed me to be involved in things far beyond my own talents and abilities.

Now tonight I can add the kind recognition of those I so truly respect and admire to the benefits of that decision made back in 1980. My tenure with the court has been rewarding and challenging. I have served during the administrations of Superior Court Chief Justices Richard Dunfey. Joseph DeClerico, Linda Dalianis, Joseph Nadeau, Walter Murphy, Robert Lynn and Tina Nadeau and I have served more than 75 individual Superior Court Judges. What have I learned?

That the position of Clerk is a unique one, calling on many different talents. You have to be part diplomat, administrator, court jester, concierge, maintenance man, guide, producer, gate keeper, cheerleader, counselor, toady, resource, sounding board, spokesperson, house elf and ringmaster. I've often said my job description contains only two lines; "It's your job". And "It's your fault" But a clerk must do whatever it takes to keep the court operating regardless of the situation. Any day is "anything can happen day." It doesn't matter if the power goes out, the phones don't work, the budget is slashed, the courthouse is at 52 degrees, staff positions can't be filled, every employee is placed on rolling furlough, a defendant is shot trying to escape during the lunch break in his trial, judicial assignments are reduced, jury trial dates are eliminated, the evidence room is full of toxic waste, a bad weekend at the state prison results in multiple 1st degree murder trials, the courthouse is locked down due to possible with anthrax contamination, a defendant attempts suicide in the courtroom, you have to look for spare phone system parts on eBay, the White House calls, Al Jezeera is on hold, the plumbing fills the courthouse with methane or the lobby bursts into flame on a Sunday morning.

Your job is simply to get it done, to keep the court operating. And that is exactly what you do because the court must be kept running. And it must be kept independent and its activities must be kept transparent and open to all. You don't do it because you have a customer base to build, or a bottom line to make or a sales quota to meet, a competitor to beat or even a billable hours level to maintain. You do it because the court and the rule of law are integral parts of an ordered and responsive society. You do it because citizens turn to the judicial branch for due process and equal protection, to redress wrongs and to insure that individual rights and liberties are protected and maintained.

I so love this position because the purpose of what we do is not contained in a mission statement, a compilation of someone else's Best Practices, a business plan, an algorithm or spread sheet. That purpose is contained in the Magna Carta, the provisions of the United States Constitution, the New Hampshire Constitution, the laws of our country and state, and through centuries of court decisions. As clerk my day to day actions have been based on doing what is legal, right, just and fair. How fortunate I am to be able to say that.

But now the time has come for another decision; the decision to leave a position I cherish. The choice is bittersweet -- but like that decision 35 years ago to leave private practice, it is the right one. I am comfortable in going because I leave knowing the court is in the good hands of Tracy, Karen and a deeply dedicated staff.

Darby and I have much to do. Five grandchildren to learn from and enjoy, many places to see, time to nourish cherished friendships and interests, to complete projects that no longer need to be put off and, yes, I have the care and maintenance of my new-found four wheeled friends; Hooper, Bertie and Austin.

But even with all we look forward to I will miss dearly all those who I have come to know and care for in the New Hampshire Judicial System and Bar and I will miss the essential work that they do. But now it is time to go. Thank you all for the patience, care and kindness shown me during the past 35 years.

I would like to close with a few lines, with minor alterations, from a Celtic ballad dating back some 360 years, be thankful I will not attempt to sing it.

Now is my departing time and here I may no longer stay
There is no kind friend of mine that does wish I were away
For here I grant some time I spent in pleasant, good kind company
For all offences I repent and wish to now forgiven be
What I have done for want of wit to memory now I can't recall
So fill for me the parting glass good night and joy be with you all

Some of the lawyers I have met are sorry for my going away
A judge or two with whom I've worked might wish me one more day to stay
But since it is my chosen lot that I should go and you should not
I'll gently rise and softly call Good Bye and joy be with you all

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