One year later, they can still hear his infectious laugh.
No one liked to laugh more than Judge Mark Wall, they say.
For those who knew Wall — as Middletown’s Municipal Court judge, Vietnam veteran, practical joker or the guy in the grocery store — remembering his laughter brought tears one year ago today. On that day, Feb. 11, 2017, Wall, who served as judge for 22 years and seemed destined to retire from that position, died after suffering a heart attack in his Middletown home.
The past year has been difficult for those closest to Wall. After his death, there were two Middletown Municipal Court judges, first Melynda Cook Howard and then James Sherron, who defeated Cook Howard and Elizabeth Yauch in a contentious race to complete Wall’s two-year unexpired term. During the last year, court officials said, there also have been five visiting judges, each operating the courtroom differently.
For the previous 103 years, Middletown was served by seven municipal court judges.
Then, after Wall’s death, turmoil replaced stability.
“For me and the court, it has been chaotic to say the least,” Sherron said of the last year.
Steve Longworth, court administrator for the last eight years, all under Wall, added: “A year we never really expected. When you have somebody you worked for and somebody who has been so active in the community, it’s a shock to the community but also a shock to the staff. It was a tumultuous year for the staff to go through.”
Maybe no city employee knew Wall better than Lisa Snead, judicial assistant and court stenographer. She said Wall’s death was “too raw” for her to discuss. Instead, she preferred to write her thoughts.
“The past year has been one of nearly unbearable heartbreak without Judge Wall at the helm of Middletown Municipal,” Snead wrote. “He was a friend, a mentor and a leader for all of us. Judge Wall was the kindest, most ethical and personable man to work for on a daily basis. He had the biggest laugh of anyone I’ve ever known and was a man who genuinely cared about everyone who crossed his path no matter what their station in life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him and miss him terribly as I lost one of my best friends that day.”
Sherron, Middletown’s ninth municipal court judge since 1914, said he “cut his teeth” in Wall’s courtroom. When Sherron started prosecuting cases, one of his first courtrooms was in Middletown, Wall’s courtroom.
“He has been a mentor my whole career,” said Sherron, adding he had discussed running for Middletown Municipal Court judge after Wall retired.
Sherron recently returned from a conference that featured more than 200 municipal judges. He said about 30 approached him and talked about the legacy Wall left.
“He was a giant in the community,” said Sherron, like Wall a Middletown native with deep roots in the city. “His gift was he didn’t present himself as a giant. He was just a guy from Middletown. It was more than just being humble. He was comfortable in his own shoes. He was just a guy who had a job to do. He just happened to do it better than anybody else. That was one of his secret qualities.”
When Butler County Common Pleas Judge Noah Powers learned Wall had died, he felt the loss personally and realized it a loss for Middletown.
“I knew it was going to be a huge hole in the community,” Powers said, noting he often thinks of Wall.
Powers met Wall in 1980 while working at Wall’s law practice during his years in law school. He learned a great deal about cases and the practice of law, he said. Then Powers had the opportunity to practice in Wall’s courtroom when he passed the bar and Wall took the gavel after the death of Judge James Combs.
“I learned even more,” Powers said.
Both men were bonded through their profession, but when Powers was elected Middletown mayor, they became allies in civic events, including MiddFest and Veterans Day ceremonies.
“He really cared about the community,” Powers said. “And he wanted to interact with people and organizations.”
Wall’s judge demeanor was “fatherly,” Powers said.
“He felt like it was his duty to help and he was way more concerned about helping people getting well and staying out of his courtroom,” Powers said.
When Butler County Common Pleas Judge Keith Spaeth became Fairfield Municipal Court judge in 1996, he spent time with Wall in meetings and conferences.
“He always demonstrated great respect for others, and, in turn, received great respect,” Spaeth said. “He generously helped me as a new judge and shared advice which I value to this day. He served his family, community and country with honor and distinction. His death has been a great loss to all those he touched. However, his life will forever be remembered by those he touched.”
Butler County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer, also a Middletonian, said Wall was a man respected by those on both sides of the bench.
“Being a judge is very difficult, many of the people you interact with are in an adversarial role,” Dwyer said. “But he was able to gain great respect from people who were on the other side of the bench.”
Dwyer said because Wall was fair and compassionate “people respected him even if they went to jail.”
Cook Howard celebrated her husband Greg’s appointment to the common pleas judge seat vacated by the death of his friend Craig Hedric, just days before Wall’s death.
“I had never seen him (Wall) happier,” she said. “It was always known that Greg was going to run for his seat when he was aged out, but with Craig’s death that didn’t happen. I remember we said we would have to talk about who would run now. Who knew we would never get the chance. He was gone a week later.”
Cook Howard said she experienced what Wall had perfected: Not all courts are the same, and decisions must be made depending on the community and issues.
“What works in Hamilton or West Chester may not work here,” Cook Howard said. “He was beloved. He had a knowledge of the community and what the community needed. He made adjustments so people wouldn’t lose their jobs to a sentence.”
Cook Howard said Wall was “a judge of our community because he came from here and he didn’t deal with a person by a case number, he dealt with them as a person. He might know their mother, he might know their father, he might know their kids … he passed sentences thinking of the person as a whole and not simply a guy who happened to be a defendant today.”
She fought back tears, then recalled litigating cases before Wall.
“I remember his laugh in court. You weren’t just an attorney, you were someone who was doing a service for your client,” she said. “Judge Wall was attached to this community. He came from a blue collar background and he never forgot that. He may have been a very big man, with a big robe with big shoes, but he forever was someone who could reach out his hand, shake it and have a conversation with everyone.”
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