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Close’s Corner: Remembering a very special Christmas

Gary L. Close pens Close's Corner
In the stately old Culpeper courthouse there is a name that continues to live amongst the older attorneys that practice there.

The name is that of the late Judge Lloyd C. Sullenberger. There is many an attorney who received the now legendary note he would attach to a returned document or proposed order that just wasn’t up to snuff: “please see me” it would say in a chicken scratch scrawl.

I must admit as a young attorney I received more than one of those notes and it was with trepidation that I would walk up the courthouse stairs, stand at the judge’s chambers, and knock. Then, I too, could learn my own trespass upon his court.

Usually you’d hear a muffled “Yes…” and that meant to come in. Judge Sullenberger would be hunched over the old wooden partner’s desk, teasing out some obscure error or another from a hapless attorney’s work.

It was never a pleasant experience. Judge Sullenberger expected nothing but perfection. As one attorney from Orange County once explained to me, Judge Sullenberger was an Episcopalian and the law was to him as the Book of Common Prayer was to an orthodox member of that denomination.

Being a Baptist, I never really understood that explanation except to know that the law was something sacred to Judge Sullenberger and he would brook no trespass upon its statutes and rulings.

So it was with that image in mind that one Christmas season I decided to take the risk and ask the Judge to be a guest of the Culpeper Jaycee’s at their annual Christmas Party. I was its President. I was young. And, I was reckless.

I knocked. He commanded my entry. Hunched over a pile of papers the old judge looked up and waited with a face that looked as if it had never seen a smile much less ever produced one. I gulped out the invitation and fled.

I expected to hear nothing from him and cursed my own stupidity in thinking he would condescend to join my little club’s festivities. After all, I was just out of law school, my club was insignificant and I was sure he would have other, better places to go.

But Christmas has its own logic --and Judge Sullenberger accepted my invitation.

The evening was highlighted by a cello, violin and flute. A log fire roared in the dining room fireplace, the food was plentiful and served by a practiced wait staff. But what I remember most was Judge Sullenberger. Gone was the dour face that hovered over the Judge’s bench. Gone the gruff voice and constricted movements of arm and body imposed by the black judicial robe. Gone the remote demeanor. Judge Sullenberger, in black tie and tux enjoyed every moment of the evening, smiling, laughing and charming those of my club closest to him at the head table.

I will always remember that moment, which only the good will of Christmas could produce, when Judge Sullenberger looked at me and smiling said, “A fine affair Mr. Close. A fine affair.”

Indeed.

Everytime I smell the smoke of winter wafting down Davis Street I cannot but remember that Christmas when Judge Sullenberger smiled, laughed and appeared to enjoy the company of a young, inexperienced attorney and the equally young Jaycee Club members. But Christmas does that to people. We tend to soften and seek the good in others as we try to create goodwill about us. And that is as it should be given that the season is to celebrate the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace…The Emanuel.

Merry Christmas Culpeper.

Gary L. Close is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at g57close@aol.com

Editor's Note: The 2014 Holiday Guide included in this issue contains more Christmas memories from some of our writers as well as lists of upcoming holiday events in Culpeper and Rappahannock.




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