"He spoke to all the Hispanic guys in Spanish, and when he came to me, he said something like, 'You did a hell of a job.' It was kind of cool," McCullough says.

So was working on the Marshall desk, which one of Skelly's staffers found covered in cobwebs in a Justice Department storage area a few months ago.

How it ended up there, Skelly says, she has no idea, but it was so banged up that she figures no one guessed it once belonged to the great jurist, who served as U.S. solicitor general for two years before ascending to the Supreme Court in 1967.

During that period, Marshall won 14 of the 19 cases he argued for the government, likely fashioning many of his written arguments on the desk's top, a layer of mahogany veneer strips aligned in a sort of resonating "V" pattern atop a slab of poplar.

He also seems to have beaten it up with use, leaving gouges in the top, gashes in the wooden fluting surrounding the knee well, dents in the drawer fronts and plenty of unsightly sun bleaching on the four-inch strip of walnut that forms the perimeter of the top.

McCullough's four-man company, which includes his sons Brian and Tim, brought the desk back to the Laurel workshop, where the boss carried out most of the fine restoration work. He filled in the gashes, re-covering them with mahogany strips aligned to the existing grain; removed and replaced damaged fluting, using razor blades and sandpaper to match the original, and spent five days with an artist's paintbrush creating a faux grain pattern around the bleached outer edges.

He also popped open an old lock, replacing it with a more user-friendly one, and found a notepad with Marshall's crest and a bag of hard candy inside.

He and his sons then added a three-inch riser so Verrilli, a rangy man, could fit comfortably below it.

The work took about 40 hours altogether, McCullough says. The bill: about $2,400.

The government sees it as a great investment — the new user included.

"Jim McCullough has done a terrific public service in restoring and preserving this important historical artifact," Verrilli wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "Because of his fine craftsmanship, I am now able to do my work every day sitting at the same desk the great Thurgood Marshall once occupied. What an inspiring privilege that is." 

McCullough feels the work gave him a personal glimpse of the legal icon, a man said to have suffered few fools gladly as he helped secure the promise of equality for a wider range of Americans.

For one thing, the only part of the desk the craftsman found in mint condition was the part that faced Marshall's guests.

"Either he had no visitors, or they were scared to get too close," McCullough says with a laugh.


Read more Prince George's County news: baltimoresun.com/pg