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Gail R. Cross, first Carroll County Orphans’ Court female judge and a political and community activist, dies

Gail R. Cross, a lifelong Democrat, got started in political activism as a student at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Gail R. Cross, a lifelong Democrat, got started in political activism as a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Gail R. Cross, who was a political and community activist and later became the first female judge to serve as a member of the Carroll County Orphans’ Court, died of coronary disease July 12 at her Salisbury home. The former Westminster resident was 78.

“I first met her in 1966,” said Elaine Frost, who lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, and a longtime friend.

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“Gail was a force of nature and the most wonderful person. We became friends from the moment we met. She had a great zest for life, politics, family and flower raising,” Ms. Frost said. “She had great enthusiasm for whatever she did.”

The former Gail Patricia Reilly, daughter of William H. Reilly, a longtime Pepsi-Cola executive, and his wife, Evelyn Centebear Reilly, a registered nurse, was born in New York City, and raised in White Plains, New York, Memphis, Tennessee, and Cheverly.

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After she graduated from Regina High School in Hyattsville, she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1963 from the University of Maryland, College Park, then worked for a decade in Washington as a paralegal.

Because she had worked in estates and trust work, after moving to Baltimore, she taught the estates and trust course at what was then Villa Julie College, now Stevenson University.

A lifelong Democrat, Ms. Cross became a political activist during her years at College Park.

“Being active in the community is part of our civic duty,” she told The Sun in a 1990 interview. “I am proud of being a politician.”

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“I have spent most of my spare time for 25 years trying to help make government serve the people better, registering voters, and serving on boards, committees and organizations with one thought in mind — that we have to strive to make government better and better.”

“I was always the one with the kids going on a picnic. I had my own Girl Scout troop at the age of 18,” she explained in an earlier 1988 interview. “I guess getting into politics at an early age may be my rebellion of the century.”

Ms. Cross, who had lived in Eldersburg, had been president of the Carroll County Democratic Club, the South Carroll Democratic Club and the Liberty Democratic Club.

Her community involvement included being a charter member of the Gist Community Association, Liberty Democratic Association, Carroll County Children’s Fund and Crime Solvers of Carroll County. She was also a founder of Freedom Fun Days in Sykesville in the late 1970s.

Ms. Cross served on numerous committees, including the Maryland 350th Anniversary Committee, Governor’s Drunk Driving Task Force, Displaced Homemakers, Freedom Business Association, 911 Committee, Carroll County Arts Council, and League of Women Voters.

She ran unsuccessfully for Carroll County Orphans’ Court in 1982, and after a Democratic judge on the court died a year later, Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed Ms. Cross to fill the vacancy.

She served as a member of the court until 1986 when she ran for Carroll County registrar of wills in 1990 and was defeated. She had challenged Reese Starner, a Republican, who had held the position since 1966.

During her campaign, Ms. Cross told The Sun “no office in government should go untended and unchanged.”

Two years later, the Bill Clinton for President Committee named her Carroll County campaign manager and a delegate to the Democratic Convention in New York City.

“I think he’s got mass appeal,” she told The Sun at the time about Clinton. “He’s very intelligent and he has a sense of the working class and their problems, and he’s a true patriot.”

Professionally, from 1986 to 1990, she worked in land acquisition for the Maryland State Highway Administration, and after moving to Elkton, worked in a similar capacity for the Delaware Department of Highways and Transportation until retiring in 2009.

She was an active member of the International Right of Way Association and gave seminars on title searches and land acquisition at regional and national meetings.

“She had a lively and pleasant personality, was friendly, and could meet people easily,” said James A. Genthner, who worked with Ms. Cross at the Maryland State Highway Administration.

After retiring, Ms. Cross and her husband of 12 years, John Bissel, a retired Chrysler executive, moved to Salisbury where she participated in the campaigns of Salisbury City Council members and mayoral candidates.

She was an accomplished gardener who “could successfully grow any type of plant, vine, fruit or tree, and often did,” said a son, former member of the House of Delegates and Senate, John A. Giannetti Jr. of Annapolis. “She was like the embodiment of Mother Nature, with a love for all living things, and a desire to have living things around her home and yard.”

Her main gardening focus was her iris gardens. She had upward of 200 irises blooming each spring, some of them from the finest European lines, her son said.

She had been president of the Iris Society of the Eastern Shore, and in 2014, had traveled to Florence, Italy, to observe the International Iris Competition held in the city each year.

“Gail was so good at flower raising that she gave me a cactus that only blooms at night,” Ms. Frost said. “She loved the homes she lived in. She upholstered furniture and made curtains. She could do it all. You name it, and she could do it.”

In addition to gardening, she enjoyed drawing and painting.

Ms. Cross did not want a funeral, wake or religious service, and instead wanted a celebration-of-life gathering of family and friends, which has not yet been planned.

“The family will make some of the iris rhizomes or bulbs, available from Gail’s gardens, so they can take them home and plant them in her memory,” her son said.

In addition to her husband and son, Ms. Cross is survived by three other sons, Gregory Giannetti, Justin Cross and Gaelen Cross, all of Sykesville; two sisters, Lynne Reilly of Shadyside and Karen Reilly of Osprey, Florida, and Lake Sebago, Maine; and four grandchildren. Earlier marriages to John A. Giannetti Sr. and Herbert Cross ended in divorce.

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