Judge Hargrove showed how to be a superhero


WE, AS A culture, elevate entertainers and athletes to positions of high visibility. By virtue of this visibility, and the insatiable public desire to know every facet of their lives, they become part of our lives. Many have earned their celebrity by accomplishments in the arts or in the athletic arena. No one would deny that Michael Jordan, by virtue of his talent and class, has earned all of the adulation heaped upon him. When you fly higher than all those around you, but your feet remain firmly planted on the ground, you have earned the title "role model." Likewise, Tiger Woods is a refreshing change from all the spoiled young millionaires. His immense talent, his flair for the dramatic and the fire that burns within him to be the best make him a worthy role model.

Most celebrities are not heroes, however. The antics of Dennis Rodman may make him a celebrity, but he is neither a hero nor a role model. People mourn the loss of rappers such as Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G., but are their lives the model that we would ask for our youth?

My son Warren has his own set of heroes, found mostly on Cartoon Network. His favorite is Batman, lord of Wayne Manor and overall good guy. My son has two Batman costumes, countless action figures, a Batman motorcycle, a remote control Batmobile, every Batman video available and his very own Batman bicycle. Batman is, to my son, a superhero. Batman wears a black cape.

One of my heroes also wore black. But it was a black judicial robe, not a costume, and his victories were real. The Hon. John Raymond Hargrove died April 1. His funeral was April 5 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Cardinal William H. Keeler celebrated the funeral Mass, which was attended by more than 400 people. The procession stretched for miles as it made its way from the cathedral to Judge Hargrove's old neighborhood, Ashburton, then on to the cemetery, located on Old Frederick Road in West Baltimore.

Some people on the street watching the procession must have wondered who deserved this much attention. John Hargrove, with his humility, would never have sought it.

The tributes to Judge Hargrove were moving and heartfelt. Speakers reflected on various parts of his career and the many firsts that he achieved. If you had spoken to "the Judge," as we called him, you never would have known how much he had accomplished in his 73 years. Although he loved to talk, rarely did he talk about himself. He was always interested in what was going on in your life. He readily gave advice that made good, common-sense.

The Sun reported, on the day after his death, that "the Judge" was a trailblazer for blacks in Maryland law. In a sense, that is true. He served as a mentor for Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals; Judge Andre M. Davis, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland; and numerous attorneys, judges and court officials.

But he had an impact on the entire legal community. Listening to tributes delivered by Stephen H. Sachs, the former attorney general for Maryland; Robert Sweeney, former chief judge of the District Court of Maryland; and Frederick J. Motz, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court, you understood that all lawyers and judges looked to John Hargrove as a model lawyer, judge and friend. His reach went well past those who might be professional colleagues, however. Each person who appeared before him was treated with respect, regardless of his or her station in life.

Over the past seven years, my wife, Janet, and I have had a great time with the Hargrove family, particularly "the Judge," his wife, Shirley, son, John Jr., and daughter-in-law, Beth. We have shared laughs, good meals, warm times and more than a few Hargrove stories. However, my fondest recollection of "the Judge" comes from a time when he did not know me.

In 1981, as a second-year lawyer, I defended a client before "the Judge" in a civil case. While the case itself was unremarkable, something that happened during jury deliberations has stayed with me until this day. After the jury began to deliberate, "the Judge" asked me to come back into his chambers. He introduced me to his staff and complimented me on my performance. He said that, no matter what the outcome, I had acquitted myself well.

Even though I won the case, what stayed with me was the fact that this respected judge would go out of his way to compliment and encourage a neophyte lawyer. My experience was not an isolated one, for many young lawyers were touched by his kindness and concern.

The second lesson I learned that day was about respect. Rather than talking to me privately, he made sure to include his office staff in our discussions. I learned from him that your staff works with you, not for you. While this lesson was subtle, it was powerful. Without saying the words, he let me know that you are only as good as the people who surround you. By showing respect, respect was earned.

In the church that I grew up in, we sang a song that went something like this: "If I can help somebody as I travel on my way, then my living shall not be in vain." As a young man, I did not really understand the significance of that song. Now, I do, because I am one of the many people touched by "the Judge." His life is a testament to the concept that the biggest impact on people and events can be made by the smallest gestures. In his unassuming way, "the Judge" has had an impact on more lives in this community than can be counted.

So, pardon me because I can't idolize the latest singing sensation. I will follow Tiger Woods with admiration and awe. But my life, and countless others, have been touched by John Hargrove. "The Judge" was immensely proud of his children, but his family includes more than his biological offspring. His life's work has earned him the title "superhero," even though he would have never sought it. If each of us can impart a little of his compassion, a little of his humility and great doses of his humor and his humanity, then we will give him his greatest tribute.

Harry S. Johnson is a Baltimore lawyer.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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