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A colorful career in the courts ends

Bernice Galbreath was in the middle of a sassy moment, razzing her co-workers in Howard District Court, draping her fire engine-red blazer on her chair and hugging everyone from fellow bailiffs to clerks -- when she noticed the balloons floating high above her desk.

"I guess I don't want to leave now," she said somberly as she read the good wishes from Judge Pamila J. Brown.

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Moments later, she was back in fine, smart-aleck form.

"It's like this every morning with Bernice," courtroom clerk Kathy Hefner said as she watched Galbreath mingle and tease. "She lights up the office."

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Nearly eight years after she uttered her first "All rise," Galbreath, a woman known for her bright-hued, color-coordinated outfits, officially hung up her navy blue bailiff's blazer this week, retiring from the job that made her a recognizable and colorful face in local courthouse circles.

It's not a decision Galbreath, the building's only female bailiff, made willingly. If she had her druthers, she wouldn't be retiring at all.

But the pain in her back, the ache that forces her to walk slightly stooped over, has gotten so bad she needs surgery. And her doctor has told her she can't return to the courthouse once she recovers.

"She creates a real spirit in the clerk's office," said Howard District Judge Neil Edward Axel, a daily recipient of a Galbreath hug. "She's wonderful, and we're going to miss her character."

By the time Galbreath, 54, walked through the front doors of the Howard District Court building in November 1995, she had weathered two career changes, neither of them her choice, and a series of personal upheavals.

Laid off from her first passion, a job teaching physical education in Baltimore City schools, the Mississippi native turned to police work in Baltimore County in the early 1980s only to be felled by pain.

By the early 1990s, she was recovering from her first back surgery, a necessary fix for an on-the-job fall, and looking for a new line of work.

Over the next months, Galbreath nursed her ailing brother until his death in December 1994 and bid goodbye to her only child, a son, when he joined the Air Force in May 1995.

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That left Galbreath, who lives in Randallstown and is divorced, with no Maryland-based family.

So it was only natural that she adopt her new co-workers. Before long, she was cooking Southern-style breakfasts of eggs, bacon and grits for court employees, taking judges to service stations to pick up their cars, and dispensing hugs and good-natured ribbing all around.

"This was my family. I cooked for them ... and that meant a lot," she said quietly one day last week, sitting on a desk in Courtroom 4. "I had somebody who needed me, and I could do for them."

She also added a bit of style to the humdrum uniform of her job.

She might have to wear the traditional muted blazer in court, but she could at least add color to the ensemble and "lift people's spirits," she said.

Over the years, Galbreath has collected her matching outfits -- blazer, shirt, pants, wild tie, tennis shoes, watch -- in everything from bright yellow to lime green to Baltimore Ravens purple.

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"She taught me to dress," Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III said jokingly.

Galbreath has been known, she said, to have fun on the job. She and Judge C. James Sfekas, who died last year of thyroid cancer, would dance in the back hallway and shoot rubber bands at each other. ("Gosh, it's been good times, I tell you," she said wistfully.)

In the courtroom, though, she made a point of taking care of the business at hand, admonishing visitors who walked in wearing hats or giving a gentle nod or head shake to guide defendants confused by their court experience.

She would have been content to stay -- to work with the judges and operate the metal detector at the front door -- if not for the back pain that returned. By last month, she knew she needed surgery, she said.

Once she recovers from next week's surgery, she figures she'll continue to spend time with her son, who moved back to Maryland in 2001, and his 2-year-old daughter, Jayla.

Beyond that, though, she said, she has no idea what her future holds.

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Courthouse workers say they are sad to see her go.

"It makes my day to walk in and see Bernice," said District Public Defender Carol A. Hanson, whose office is in the courthouse building. "Working here will not be the same."


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