A legendary Chester resident

Judge Kermit V. Rooke, a longtime resident of Chester, was often seen at the old Post Office wearing a black suit, a yellowing straw hat, and carrying a cane. In retirement, Judge Rooke kept an office on the second story of the Insurance Building where he chewed a cigar, talked on the telephone, and wrote wills for the elderly, gratis.

His chief interest was scouting, which reflected his desire to prevent crime in young people rather than having to deal with them as juvenile offenders. He supported the Robert E. Lee Council of the Boy Scouts of America and Camp Brady Saunders, believing that good associations and worthwhile activities would help produce good citizens.

I met Judge Rooke in the 1970s when he invited 25 school administrators in the Richmond area to a steak and lobster dinner at a fashionable restaurant. After dinner, he asked very humbly if he could impose upon us for 10 minutes. He explained that the dinner was sponsored by a friend, and that he wanted to ask us to open our schools one evening to register new Boy Scouts. We all agreed. The next year he repeated the event, and we assured him that annual dinners were unnecessary.

 Later, friends Harry and Lorraine Moody asked Alice and me to go to dinner with Kermit and Velna, Judge Rooke’s petite wife, and it was suggested that I drive Harry’s Lincoln Town Car since it would accommodate everyone. That was the beginning of a lasting friendship. The six of us often went to dinner and enjoyed Judge’s stories and interests. Restaurants chosen had to meet two of Judge’s requirements:  an Old Fashioned made with extra sugar before dinner and ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert, strangely enough not always easy to find.

Judge never had more than one drink, and he joked that his license tag, LLB&JD, stood for the Law and Jack Daniel’s.

The walls of Judge Rooke’s office were covered with plaques and awards for work in the legal profession, diplomas, civic service, contributions to Scouting, offices in the Richmond Lions Club, recognition as an after dinner speaker, and as a 32nd degree Mason.  A native of rural Brunswick County, he received undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Virginia, and opened a law office in Richmond.  After a successful career, he was elevated to the judgeship by act of the General Assembly.

In retirement, he built a house on Lafon Street. A couple of years later, he called and asked me to stop by his office to talk, something I did frequently in walks to and from coffee shops. What he had in mind was his pending move to an assisted living home due to his wife’s health. Moreover, he said he would be selling his house and that I could have it at cost before he put it in the hands of a realtor. “I don’t do real estate law,” he said, “but I know that disclosure is very important and I hereby state that Harry Moody is my next door neighbor – but there is an offsetting factor. Lorraine Moody also lives there.” After some deliberation, I turned down his offer, not wanting to pack and move a mile from my home.

Later, he asked me to be executor of his will. “It’s now in the hands of the bank and all they do is give it to some youngster who don’t know nothing.” Several times in his last year he warned, “Don’t turn this over to any lawyer to settle!”

One of Judge Rooke’s favorite stories concerned a case involving a young fellow who worked for a farm implement company. His manager directed him to deliver a manure spreader to a dairy farm in Short Pump.  A manure spreader is a large hopper on wheels with rear paddles to throw manure on cultivated fields and is pulled by a tractor. Short Pump in those days seemed far out of Richmond and consisted of small farms, an elementary school, and a transmission garage.

The young man delivered the spreader early one morning, and, as part of the deal, pulled the old spreader back to Richmond.  Along Broad Street, and as he approached the old Union Station, a bump activated a lever on the spreader, and it began slinging residue on the sidewalk and on the wide windows of the restaurant at the Byrd Hotel. Guests were having breakfast, and the irate manager called the police. A patrolman stopped the tractor and arrested the young man, who was then taken before Judge Rooke’s court.  Judge asked the clerk to read the charge.

The arresting officer had written, “Distributing a foreign matter on the streets and sidewalks of the city.” Judge pondered the matter for a moment and said, “I declare that manure is a domestic matter, and therefore, case dismissed.”

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