Municipal building workers reminisce as closing nears

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Next week will mark the end of an era for Augusta when Richmond County's justice system begins fully operating from its new quarters on James Brown Boulevard.

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Sgt. Kenny Holden, the chief bailiff, recalled notifying a judge in court as the Sept. 11 attacks were taking place.   Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Sgt. Kenny Holden, the chief bailiff, recalled notifying a judge in court as the Sept. 11 attacks were taking place.

For 54 years, Superior Court has been held at the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building on Greene Street, the same site as the original courthouse built in 1820.

Linda Beazley spent decades working in several roles at the municipal building but spent a few months working in the first courthouse, too.

Sheriff James T. Plunkett would pick her up in the mornings in a big Buick and take her to the courthouse, where she created an index of all the city streets in Augusta.

The building smelled old, "like a courthouse should," Beazley recalled.

High ceilings and fans with long blades kept the place from getting too hot. Plaster would fall from the ceiling, and the clerks all knew to cover their heads when they heard a crack.

The first time she was invited to sit and observe a court session, two women arguing before a judge got into a brawl that ended with them rolling in the aisles. One deputy was on hand to break it up, and he had his hands full, Beazley said, laughing.

"I thought, 'Man this is the place to be,' " she said.

The old courthouse also housed the welfare department, the tax commissioner's office and the sheriff's office and was the place to file for "lunacy warrants" and marriage licenses.

"I loved it," Beazley said. "I hated to see it get torn down."

Beazley later worked for Judge Iree Pope, the first female Richmond County judge. Beazley, one of the first clerks to move into the municipal building, sympathizes with today's employees coping with the stress of relocating.

"My heart goes out to them," she said.

The municipal building has its own share of stories.

Sgt. Kenny Holden, the chief bailiff, has coordinated security at the "marble palace" for 21 years. It's a carefully orchestrated matter of placing deputies in the right places, sequestering jurors and keeping citizens safe, he said.

One of his most poignant memories is the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He passed a note to a judge after the North Tower was struck, who nodded and told him to keep him apprised.

Holden gave him another note when the South Tower was hit, then another after the Pentagon was hit. The judge paused after the third note, then announced the situation to the jurors and legal staffers. He declared a mistrial, telling everyone to go home to their loved ones.

In the wake of the attacks, Holden posted deputies at each of the building's 10 entrances for a 24/7 watch. He rotated around the building for three days, bringing water and giving deputies breaks.

It's tough sometimes to listen to graphic testimony, Holden said, but the perks of working as a bailiff are regular hours and an informal legal education.

"A judge told me one time that I could perform better than some lawyers. That made me feel real good," Holden said.

Beverly Cullipher, a deputy clerk for 20 years, enjoyed spending time in the courtroom assisting the judges.

In the municipal building, judges travel through passageways from their offices on the third floor to the courtrooms. Once, she said, Judge Albert Pickett was on his way back to the courtroom for a verdict when he stopped to use the private restroom. The door knob came off from inside the bathroom, and Pickett was stuck inside.

Cullipher and other court staffers' impatience grew into anxiety when the judge failed to appear. Then they heard a faint banging.

Holden went to investigate, drawing his sidearm as he approached the door.

"Who's in there?" he demanded.

Pickett replied with some choice, unprintable words, Cullipher said.

The courtroom wasn't the only site of drama in the municipal building. The Clerk of Court's office was the repository for more than two centuries of Richmond County history. The vault, for instance, includes slave records dating back to 1787.

Most people, though, are interested in their family's history going back only a few generations. Adults who were adopted will comb the records searching for their birth parents; others discover that their divorce from 22 years ago was never finalized. Tears of joy and bitterness are common.

The municipal building also housed the elections office, where Beazley was the director. The office was preparing for an election one day when an immaculately dressed man walked in.

"The crease in his pants would have sliced bread," Beazley said. He identified himself as "the prophet" and declared that the election would not be taking place. He punctuated his pronouncement with several raps of his cane.

Beazley took a hard look at him and then her employees, who were waiting for a cue.

"All right, people, let's close up and leave," she said. "The prophet has spoken."

That seemed to satisfy the man, who left without a fuss. When he was out of sight, Beazley started up their operation again.

She laughs at the memory, then sighs with happiness as her memories as a public servant bubble up.

"I loved working for government," Beazley said. "It was wonderful."


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