Coshoctonian award presentation speech

| April 22, 2013

Contributed to The Beacon by Robin Coffman

COSHOCTON – The Coshoctonian award recognizes an individual’s “long term contribution to the well-being and economic climate of the community.”  The recipient must be a resident of Coshocton County.  It is not the “Coshoctonian of the Year” award; rather it recognizes the totality of a person’s contribution to our community during his or her lifetime.  There have been no posthumous awards.

The members of the selection committee are the Chamber President, the Chamber Past President, the Chamber Executive Director, a representative of the city government (usually the mayor), a representative of the county government (usually the Chairperson of the Commissioners), and a past recipient (usually the previous year’s).  After studying the nominations, the committee decides upon a recipient during a meeting chaired by me.  Each year’s selection has always been unanimous.

Once a person is nominated, they remain on the nominated list year to year.  However, please do not assume a person you consider worthy has been previously nominated.  The more nominations we receive, the more information we have on which to base our decision.  All nominations are treated very confidentially.

Dependable, devoted, decisive, defender, deliberator, developer, distinguished, disciplined, and a disciple, these are the words that best describe tonight’s recipient.

He was born and raised in Coshocton, attended Lincoln School and graduated from Coshocton High School.  He then went to Ohio Wesleyan, where he met the love of his life.

He first began to know the love of his life when her father was pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Coshocton. She also went to Ohio Wesleyan, a year ahead of our recipient, and they became reacquainted during college. As an economics major at Ohio Wesleyan, he would often cross a small bridge over a creek that ran through the campus, known somewhat affectionately as “Dishwater Run.” He began to notice that about every time he crossed that bridge to the main campus he encountered a young lady waiting at the end of the bridge – of course, she was there to see him, but he thought it was merely coincidence, but enjoyed her company nonetheless. She was a year ahead of him in school so they had different groups of friends and activities. These frequent meetings allowed them to talk about Coshocton, friends and family. (It was not until years later that he would find out that she had carefully timed her steps from Gray Chapel to “run into him!”) His wife-to-be actually asked him out on their first date which was a Homecoming Football Game, something which was somewhat daring in those days. His wife tells him the first “spark” was not from a kiss, but rather happened when he threw his arm across her shoulder while crossing South Sandusky Street returning to the dormitory after a date. There are good memories of many good night kisses in front of Hayes Hall and the Honor House. Well, to make a long story short, she chased him until he caught her, and they became engaged.

Even when our recipient was in college, his fraternity brothers noticed his gregariousness.  The standing joke was that he could stop by a man in man hole, and casually ask him “How are the wife and kids?” referring to his personality of friendliness to everyone with whom he would encounter, an endearing quality which he still displays every day.

He majored in economics at Ohio Wesleyan, and upon graduation, worked in the Columbus Ohio Public Schools as a substitute teacher for the 1969-1970 school year, teaching business office education.  As a person who believed and lived a life of discipline, he demanded the same of his students, which caused friction in an otherwise permissive school atmosphere.  There was even a time when a large 18 year-old threw a typewriter down, smashing it on the floor, in defiance of our recipient’s intolerance to misbehavior in the class room.  Our recipient took the boy to the principal’s office, and was told by the principal through an only slightly opened door that “there is a problem here,” and he closed the door.  Well, later in the school year, a woman with a master’s degree replaced our recipient, but apparently, that was not suitable to the class, for they demanded that the school return him to his position. The class defended our recipient and at the end of the term, the class honored him by taking him out to lunch and one even hand-made a necktie for him.  I believe that says a lot about our recipient’s character, and his insistence upon discipline, and its effect on young people, who actually thrive upon it, and will often sometimes reluctantly accept it.

Between his junior and senior year at Ohio Wesleyan, he went to Aalst, Belgium, where our local Edmont Company had a plant. He worked during the day at a bank and in the evening as a waiter in a restaurant in order to cover his costs for room and board.

During his senior year, he spent a lot of time on the road between Delaware and Columbus, where the woman he would marry was teaching in the Grove City Elementary Schools.  Within one week of his graduation, he married her, and as the saying goes, “the rest is history.”

That same year, our recipient decided that he would have more career opportunities, and because he learned that his selective service number was 346, making it unlikely that he would be drafted; he applied and was accepted into the Vanderbilt Law School. His wife got a job in the Nashville City Schools in the inner city at first, but later moved to teaching in a small town elementary school – considered a much safer place to teach.

After graduating from Law School, our recipient accepted a position with the law firm of Lane, Alton and Horst for two years, and his wife continued to teach in the elementary schools of Grove City.

It was at that time that Gene Weir visited our recipient, and offered him a position with his law firm along with his partner, Milan Frase.  Our recipient accepted the offer, and moved to a rental home on Fairy Falls Drive.  On May 14th, 1974 the first of his three daughters, Hallie was born.  Our recipient continued his association with Frase and Weir for six years.  But then a big thing happened in his life – he was appointed by Governor James Rhodes to replace Judge Richard Evans’ unfinished term as probate and juvenile judge, while Judge Evans ran for the Judge of Common Pleas.  He had to run for election of that position, but it was almost as if destiny had his hand on our recipient’s shoulder because he was finally in his perfect niche.  The following November, he ran for his first full term and was re-elected handily.  From that event onward he made his indelible mark on our community.

He held the position of Judge of the Probate and Juvenile Court for 28 years.  It is hard to imagine the impact he has had on our community displaying his sense of discipline, dependability and integrity.   He estimates that he has had somewhere between 15 to 17 thousand young teens appear before him on traffic charges alone – and it is hard to estimate what effect his discipline and devotion has had on these teens.  Our recipient modestly says that he “saw it as an opportunity to affect the lives of many young people, and provide a positive influence in their lives.”  One can only speculate of the number of lives that he has turned around, literally, by the presence of him as their judge.  I am certain that he gave many stern warnings to those who had violated the law, and heeding his warnings and admonitions changed their lives, and almost always, for the better.  An article in the Coshocton Tribune in 2000 outlined some of his duties as Probate and Juvenile Judge, including the fact that the guardianship law requires that the judge make the least restrictive decision as it affects the ward’s rights while, at the same time, protecting the ward and the public.  Often he would struggle with some of his upcoming decisions and they would sometimes keep him awake at night.  He stated, “The hardest part of my job is prioritizing someone else’s needs,” and there were times when his decisions affected some people he had neither seen nor met.

His job was divided between adults and children, and both required him to make decisions for those people who are unable legally to make for themselves. There often comes a time in a life when an adult regresses back to childhood ways, and must have a guardian appointed for them. When there is neither a willing nor a consenting relative for that person, it is the judge’s job to appoint someone, usually a local attorney, to care for the adult, and the attorney most often does so gratis because it is part of his or her  obligation as an attorney.

In many cases, the judge will first evaluate, and then try to make the best decision for the person. “We tailor to the needs of the person.” When it comes to juveniles, his job is more like a social worker than a judge. Sometimes, when he intervenes with what others would call a normal family existence, he may break apart a family when abuse, neglect and/or dependency have made it dysfunctional, which played a large role in his decision – and were often the most difficult decisions he had to make.

When he took the job of Judge, he stated, “It is not something a law student necessarily aspires to,” but said that he wanted the job.  He said, “It was time for change, and I wanted to assist families and children” quickly reminding people that he had no magic answers.  But through the years, he learned many of the traits of persons, saying, “Eccentricities do not automatically make persons incompetent.” Rather it was his job to determine “if the eccentricity was a rational decision, or if the person does not know or if they are not aware of what they are doing.”  This is part of the job which our recipient thinks has changed him most as a person.  He said, “I’ve grown to respect people more and appreciate and allow them to be different.”   What a role model he has provided!

Their two other daughters, Kara and Jordan were also born and raised in Coshocton.   Kara is married and Jordan is still in school, and he and his wife now have two grandchildren.

He has been very active and effective in other areas of our community.  He has served on the Board of Echoing Hills Foundation, an institution made possible by another Coshoctonian, Cordell Brown, and included serving a term as chairperson.  He is on the Advisory Board of the Salvation Army, as well as on the Board of Central Ohio Technical College.  He has been a member of the Kiwanis Club.  He has served on the Developmental Disabilities Board.  He has also served on the Board including one term as Treasurer of the Ohio Association of Probate Judges. It certainly reflects positively when a group of your peers chooses you to oversee the finances of their organization. 

However, his recognitions exceed these – he was cited by the Ohio Supreme Court with a special honor for his work at an annual meeting of Ohio Association of Probate and Juvenile and Family Court Judges.  The award recognizes judges who have kept a current docket during the previous year and file monthly reports, detailing what cases he has heard and disposed of successfully.  Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Anthony Celebrezze said that the award is symbolic of that effort and the people of Coshocton County should be proud of the work our recipient was doing in his court.  Again, this award was an indication of his dedication to his career.

The youth of our county have been a very high priority for our recipient.  He spent a lot of his time for the abused, neglected and dependent children by working with Children’s Services, and issuing decrees for placement and counseling.  But it was the delinquents who would consume up to 70 percent of his time on the bench.  So he decided upon a new idea – to allow the children to work off their sentences by serving the community.  He believes no child is born bad, but rather is influenced by the world around them.  Our recipient was quoted as saying that he always tried to blend toughness with some basic understanding to help the kids become productive citizens.  Upon completion of sentence for community service, he would meet with the juvenile, and “just sit and talk and find out what the offender had learned from the experience.  At this session, I tell the offender how proud I am of his effort, and let him know that I care.  I also tell him that if he has a problem in the future and needs to talk, to call me.”  He also started a similar program dealing with truancy in all three school districts.  I think a common term for our recipient’s approach to such delinquency matters would be “tough love,” meaning showing a person that he or she is worthy of redemption and rehabilitation, but at a price of showing improvement of self and of others.  His success rate at never seeing the juvenile again stands above ninety percent – another testimony to the effectiveness of his love and devotion to the children and citizens of Coshocton County.  However, there was another, softer side of our recipient shown when he approved the adoption of a little girl to her new parents, and then dutifully signed the adoption papers of the little girl’s Cabbage Patch Doll – to her absolute delight, and making it quite official.

Upon assuming the job of Probate and Juvenile judge, he said, “When I first took the bench I had a certain level of appreciation of the responsibility I was taking on when making decisions which would have, in some cases, a life-long impact on the children and families who came before me. I was, however, naive as to how complex these real life situations could become. While I was required to make a decision there were many times when God was an important part of the process not only as to the decision but also to His future intervention in the lives of the people being served. As I matured in my professional life, I also felt God’s importance in my personal life, understanding that I had the responsibility to make good decisions affecting my family and me and that God needed to be involved. When life choices need to be made, I am grateful that there is a higher power to lean on.”  We were blessed indeed to have such a dedicated, devoted man as our probate and juvenile judge.

He also has a great singing voice and involved with athletic activities, having lent his talents to the Grace United Methodist Church Choir and many years in the Coshocton Community Choir, founded by previous Coshoctonian, Charles Snyder.  In addition, by his own admission, he is very health conscious.  For years he could be found at the Coshocton High School swimming pool, made possible by another Coshoctonian, Edwin Mulligan, in whose wife’s name, donated the pool to the school. He would often swim at least four days a week beginning at 5:15 a.m., and quit after swimming a mile, about 45 minutes.  I’m certain that he thought about his upcoming docket for that day, as well as cases he had under consideration – it was a welcome distraction, as well as terrific physical exercise.  In addition to that, he is an avid walker – another mark of determination and dedication.  Once a year he travels to Canada to rough it and go fishing with his family, a refreshing respite from the demands of his job. 

Our recipient is also a very careful man about his money, (please note the election as Treasurer of the Ohio Association of Probate Judges mentioned previously.) Once in his early years, when he and his wife were living in Nashville, they really wanted to go home for the holidays, but the tires were too worn on his car to make safely the trip and they did not have the money to buy new tires. But suddenly, in the nature of his being good at finding things, he noticed some money blowing in the wind while they were driving around, and they managed to pick up 3 twenty dollar bills, just enough to cover the cost of new tires (please remember, this was some time ago, when $60 could buy 4 good tires) and they were able to make the trip.  His wife interprets that event as “some sort of a God thing.” 

His naturally good nature and friendly attitude have made more than one person remark that he, like Will Rogers, never met a person he didn’t like.

In 2006, there was a reception at Grace Church honoring his then 25 years on the bench.  Many thoughtful, grateful notes were written in appreciation of all of his years of service.  There were more than 110 handwritten notes of appreciation and admiration of our recipient and his twenty-five years of service, and the positive effect he has made to so very many of us in our community.  They all echoed the items I have already covered, how each person who appeared before him was always treated with respect, dignity, fairness and firmness.  So many people have been touched so positively by our recipient that words simply fail to express what is felt for him in our community.

When asked about why he decided to retire after 28 years on the bench, he wrote, “Several years before I retired from my full time tenure on the bench I made a promise to myself that I would not stay beyond the point I felt I was able to maintain the day in and day out stamina necessary to do my best work as it would not be fair to the community nor my family. So, as I contemplated whether I would run for another term I went through a self evaluation and decided, while I still truly liked my job, after 28 years, it was time to move on to the next chapter. Fortunately, I was able to reduce the rigors of a full time professional career with part time assignments in a number of nearby counties which enabled me to stay active without the demands of full time work.”

He still responds to calls for out-of-county sessions when a local judge is either unavailable or has a conflict of interest, and he still serves with the same devotion, dedication and discipline.

Although, he does not understand the reason he was selected to be our recipient tonight, a mark of his humility, the selection committee, along with our entire community believe that he epitomizes what is the very best in our community – a man of decisive, compassionate, deliberative, distinguished and devoted service, with allegiance to being a disciple of God, all of which makes him so very deserving to be our recipient tonight!  It is my privilege and honor to present the 2013 Coshoctonian award to the honorable, and I mean that in more than one way, Judge C. Fenning Pierce!

Category: People & Places

About the Author ()

Article contributed to The Beacon.

Comments are closed.