Greene County judge will leave courthouse better than he found it

Greene County Common Please Court Judge Stephen Wolaver is rounding home in his time as a judge.

Wolaver, 70, will retire at the beginning of 2021 from a 45-year career as a lawyer and then a judge, the latter role that he said is much like being the umpire of a game.

“The most important ball player in the courtroom is the lawyer,” Wolaver said. “In my time as a judge, I tried to never lose sight of what it is like to be a lawyer.”

The Fairborn native said as judge he tried to never lose sight of the fact that the people appearing before him in court are human beings.

“It’s the most responsible thing that a judge does. I’ve always wanted to make sure that every litigant, whether it be a civil case or a criminal case could come to me and know they would get their right to a trial,” Wolaver said. “We serve the people who come before us everyday. When I send someone to prison, I always try to say something encouraging to them.”

Gov. Mike DeWine hired Wolaver full-time in the prosecutor’s office, where he rose through the ranks to chief trial counsel.

Wolaver ran three times unopposed for the judge position.

“I was blessed three times to never have an opponent for a contested office,” Wolaver said. “I would like to think that’s because my peers thought I would do a good job in the office.”

Greene County Common Pleas Court Administrator Mark Donatelli said he has known Wolaver since 1981.

“I’ve tried cases against him as a defense attorney, I’ve tried cases in front of him in a jury trial when he’s been a judge,” Donatelli said. “As a judge and as a lawyer, he listens to you and treats you with dignity and respect. Good judges make you feel as if you and your client have been treated fairly, even if it’s not the outcome you wanted. And he has always done that. The court will miss him, that’s for sure.”

Wolaver said the case that sticks most with him is the murder trial of David Myers, who was convicted of the 1988 killing of Amanda Maher with a railroad spike. Wolaver prosecuted the case for two months in 1996. Myers was sentenced to death row.

“It was a long, involved, wild case,” Wolaver said.

One of the biggest curveballs of his career was the second day he took office as judge.

“I got a phone call from a reporter at the Dayton Daily News and the reporter asked, ‘what are you going to do about the probation officers who are stealing money?” Wolaver said. “This was my second day in office, so I’m not sure I know the names of all my probation officers yet. I said ‘Well can I get back to you on that?’”

Wolaver said he had to “clean house” and change the way the probation department was run. The department is now one of two probation departments in the state that is accredited.

“I could not do my job without the people who work here,” Wolaver said.

Ron Mellotte, who has been Wolaver’s bailiff since 2007, said the judge is a genuine person.

“He believes in the good in people. He is so even-handed,” Mellotte said.

Wolaver’s staff also said he is “one hell of a softball player.” In the judge’s office, there is a framed plaque honoring him as “legend of the game.”

“Before COVID hit, he was playing basketball two mornings a week and swimming,” Mellotte said. “You wouldn’t believe the guy is 70.”

Wolaver said he is most proud of the Greene County Veterans Treatment Court he started in 2017.

“In specialty courts, judges spend a lot time with these folks to make sure they’re doing the right things and to make sure the problems they have they can overcome,” Wolaver said. “My grandfather was in WWI, my father was in WWII, my brother was in the Air Force and my son was a special forces soldier. I’ve always had an interest in it and I have the right kind of temperament to work with these people. We do our best to help them become successful people in the community, so they won’t be back committing these crimes again.”

Wolaver said the court is supported by the Veteran’s Administration, the probations department, retired veterans who volunteer to work with veterans in the specialty court and the Veteran’s Services Commission in Greene County.

Wolaver is also proud of improvements to the courthouse.

“I love this old building,” he said.

When he was first elected, Wolaver updated the technology in the courthouse by adding video conferencing capabilities and electronic display boards. Wolaver also restored his courtroom and refurbished paint throughout the courthouse. He designed the basement courtroom.

Greene County Administrator Brandon Huddleson said Wolaver has been “terrific to work with.”

“We share a real love for the old courthouse,” Huddleson said. “We share this deep love and respect for the building and he’s always a person we consult when things need to be done to the courthouse.”

Wolaver was top of his game, his staff said. The judge served on the Ohio Jury Instructions Committee, the Criminal Law and Procedure Committee and the Ohio Rules Commission. He said if he were permitted to be a judge past age 70 by Ohio law, he probably would not be retiring.

“Everyday is different. Everyday is interesting,” Wolaver said. “Everyday when I wake up, I’m excited to get to work.”

Judge Buckwalter will take over the court on Jan. 2.

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