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The Versailles Republican

January 1, 2015 • Headlines

Milan High School Band challenged Batesville High School Band to a “Battle of the Bands” food drive. On Dec. 16, Milan was crowned winner collecting 1,521 items. These items were donated to the Milan Council of Churches just in time for the holidays. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Volunteers from People Helping People distributed gifts to about 50 needy families on Christmas Eve. Some on the list even got a new bike! For more photos pick up The Versailles Republican at your local newsstand and check out page 12! MARY MATTINGLY PHOTO
Tom Tepe Autocenter
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Versailles American Legion Post
Legion helps, lifts spirits of others

Mary Mattingly

Some 50 families had a better Christmas this year thanks to efforts from the Versailles American Legion Post. The organization has been helping South Ripley school district families in need at Christmas for over 60 years. Fundraisers and private donations contribute to the cause. One of the main contributors is People Helping People, which started in 1988 from a $400 donation given to help an out of work electrician and to help the Dearborn County Clearing House, which was short on funds that year. Since then, People Helping People has grown into a nonprofit organization hosting several fundraisers, including a golf outing, marathon and canned food drive. The food drive has grown from 2,700 cans in 1989 to 70,000 cans distributed to 11 agencies in a four county area, including the Versailles American Legion Post. The Ripley County Food pantry and the Milan Community Relief also receive canned goods.

People Helping People Volunteers
Pictured left, volunteers from People Helping People form an assembly line and roll cases of canned goods into the Versailles American Legion Post.

In the beginning, just two pickup trucks brought the goods to the Versailles post, but as the program grew, a semi-truck, donated and driven by Kroger Co. has hauled the pallets of canned goods. On Friday, Dec. 12, about 20 employees of the American Electric Company volunteered their time to deliver the goods. They set up an assembly type line with rollers to move the boxes from the truck to the post hall in Versailles. From there, the legion members take over and bag the groceries for delivery to the needy on their list.

People Helping People Volunteers
Pictured right, legion members later sorted the groceries and gifts and distributed them to about 50 needy families on Christmas Eve.

“People Helping People’s goal of making a difference in the lives of needy individuals is made possible through the continued generous support of the community, contractors, vendors and I&M Tanners Creek employees and retirees,” according to Sonia Deshong, co-chair of the event with Dennis Teke. She noted the initial $400 donation has increased to almost $40,000 donated or grants received annually.

On Christmas Eve, about 50 Versailles American Legion members met at 9 a.m. and delivered about $65 worth of groceries and toys, including nine bikes. This year Kelly Oil of Versailles donated $2,000 toward groceries for the project. Ham, bacon, bread and other items were part of the groceries. A poster board showed where the teams would go in the county, and each helped load items into vans, trucks, and other vehicles. Most were finished by noon with their Christmas delivery. The local legion members feel the program is very much appreciated, and needed. A few members recalled how a local family was the recipient one year, and the father came back a year later to give $100 to the cause because they had helped him when he was in need. One legion member donates his time to deliver goods on Dec. 24 because he too was a recipient, and that was 60 years ago when his father left and they were left with little.

The judge’s last order: retirement!
‘I have the dream job.’ Judge Morris

Mary Mattingly

Being a judge takes a lot of sense, as in common sense, a sense of fairness and a sense of humor. It also takes a knowledge of the law and the power you render on people’s lives. Most will agree James Morris, the Ripley County Superior Court Judge, has those qualities and more. He knew he wasn’t going to be popular when he was elected to the position 18 years ago, but when he first ordered an unpopular decision, he was threatened the next day. In his mailbox was a pack of Marlboros with a note: “I hope you smoke these and get cancer and die.” Morris laughs at that, showing he does have a sense of humor. But he wasn’t laughing when he was threatened by a woman who was upset that he did not allow her child visitation rights until she saw a psychiatrist. She said she would bomb the courthouse. A call from her doctor indicated she was crazy enough to carry out her threat, and she was on her way to the county courthouse. Security was alerted, and “I ate my lunch with the sheriff. It was scary,” he said, sitting in his office on the third floor of the courthouse. “That was my worst case.”

James Morris


James Morris’ last day as judge was Wednesday.

Honorable Judge James Morris’ last day as judge was Dec. 31. He has been the only judge of the superior court since it was established 18 years ago. The court oversees civil and criminal cases. Morris, 66, will miss the people, co-workers and the challenge, but he won’t miss the late-night calls to issue a search warrant for a blood alcohol test, or sign off on an affidavit probable cause. That’s an aspect of the judge role few realize. Sheriff Rodney Stratton, who knew Morris during his local attorney days, said Morris was always professional with a pleasant demeanor, no matter the hour of day.

“No one likes to be disturbed in the middle of the night by a police officer seeking a search warrant or some type of order, but Judge Morris would listen to the details of your case in the wee hours of the morning just like he would do on a normal work day. Our county has been blessed to have him in our community and on our bench.” Despite threats, early morning calls and 12 hour days, Morris has no regrets the day he filed to run for elected office. “I have the dream job. It’s perfect and suits my personality,” he said.

Morris became a lawyer late in life, when he was 40 years old. This was after he graduated in 1970 from IU with a teaching degree in biology and math and after he was drafted for the Vietnam War but failed the physical. He then had a contract to teach in Evansville and then became a case worker for Marion County Welfare Department, which is where he met his wife Sally of 41 years. “We dated six weeks before we got engaged.” (He said it was love at first sight for him, but he’s not so sure for Sally!)

A variety of jobs from Big Brothers in Indianapolis, the state attorney general’s office, and the Dept. of Child Services for Marion County later led him to pursue law school at night. By then he and Sally had Lauren, their first of two daughters. It was tough to go to school, work in the day and be a father. “I had more civil law experience than criminal law. I almost quit law school but a dean there kept me going. I told him, ‘I’ll be almost 40 years when I graduate from law school three years from now, and he said to me,’ well tell me this. How old will you be three years from now if you don’t graduate from law school? Touche’!” he recalls and laughs. “That word of encouragement kept me going. I’m very glad I did.” He graduated from IU law school in 1986.

A job posting from Neil Comer in Osgood is what brought him to Ripley County. He had no ties here, but he liked the idea of his two children growing up in a small town. He became familiar to local people with his role as chief deputy prosecutor for Frank Arkenberg and for the Franklin County prosecutor Mel Wilhelm. He practiced law in Batesville as a public defender and worked for the Dept. of Child Services for Ripley, Dearborn and Ohio counties. As for his decision to run for Superior Court judge, he wasn’t into politics, but drove to Indy on the very last day to file to run on the Republican ticket. He and Sally campaigned hard, using most of their own money rather than soliciting donations. That was three terms ago. He was unopposed his second term, and was challenged on the third term. He finds it somewhat ironic that Hamilton County Judge William Hughes is from Versailles, and is on the bench in Morris’ home county of Hamilton and he’s practicing in Hughes’ home turf.

Morris is content with the way his career played out. He says his high school classmates would be quite surprised the very quiet and shy guy they knew became a judge. Some of those earlier attributes continue today, and he says he is not quiet but reserved, “I still don’t like to give speeches, and I get emotional. I guess it’s part of who I am,” he said. Morris’ other qualities help in this role. “I have a lot of patience. I don’t get upset easily. You have to watch out for the power you have and be careful. Decisions made here alter lives.”

In the beginning, he was often up after hours researching law, going over cases. “I am not perfect. I don’t think every decision I made was exactly right but I tried to be perfect. And, they do have the opportunity to appeal my decisions.” Morris has never been reversed on a criminal case, “Yes, I am proud of that. It means I make decisions and follow the law carefully. I am not here to make new law. You do have precedent…It is the legislators’ job to change the law, not mine.” He did get one civil case verdict changed, because he didn’t add the numbers right for the monetary award. In the early judge days, he often internalized the job’s pressures, but later learned how to cope, “I really try to forget who I have in the courtroom. So when I leave the building, I leave the decisions here,” he said, citing the many people he runs into in the community. “I think it took 10 years to be a good one (judge)” he commented. He prefers defendants are at ease in the courtroom. “I try to treat people with respect, even if they did a bad or stupid thing. I always felt but for the grace of God it could be me. I had some lucky breaks and made the right decisions. Some people don’t.”

Nine year co-worker
Ripley County Prosecutor Ric Hertel said Morris is fair, with a more relaxed courtroom than some other judges. “ He makes sure all defendants get their chance to tell him everything. He’s always been respectful of all lawyers and people in his court, whatever the reason they found themselves there.” Although he feels for people and their mistakes, “I won’t hesitate to put them in jail or take away rights if need be.” Oftentimes jail is the best thing, giving them a chance to get off drugs or alcohol, both main contributors to criminal acts. A lack of respect for the law is what angers him. “To me the rule of law is what makes our country great. It is the best system in the world but that does not mean it is perfect.”

Surprisingly, his 18 years dealing with crime and disputes hasn’t made him cynical about people or society, but does add, “It’s amazing to me that people actually lie. I find that hard to believe, but I know it for a fact. People seem to be more willing to lie than they used to.” He advises the next judge, Jeff Sharp, the volume of cases can be overwhelming and to research each case may be unrealistic. In 2013 there were 1619 filings, and of those, 114 were bench trials.

Tomorrow’s plans
Instead of donning a black robe and carrying a gavel, Morris will more likely be in jeans and holding a fishing pole. He wants to fish and garden more in his retirement, perhaps finish some house projects. Morris is extremely proud of his two daughters, who left the small town and both live in big cities (LA for Sarah and Lauren in Atlanta) and plans to visit them and his grandchild, Kellan James Morris Getzler, Lauren and husband Cole’s’ child, often with Sally. Sally retired from the Ripley County Community Foundation this month also. He humbly says, “It has been such a great honor to serve Ripley County and people have often thanked me, but I’m just doing my job. I look at it as a great honor just to be chosen to serve.”

Pick up this week's edition of The Versailles Republican for the stories below and more local news. Subscribe by clicking the subscribe link or call 812-689-6364.

• 2014: Top local stories (5-1) of the year (front page)
Sunman Town Council: Water and burning ordinances discussed (front page)
• Sheriff's monthly activity report (page 3)
• On The Record From the Ripley County Courthouse and Versailles Town Court (page 6)

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