It was standing room only in Burke County’s courtroom last Thursday as judges, attorneys and government and business leaders piled in to observe a historic moment.
Judge John H. “Jack” Ruffin Jr. stood before his colleagues, close friends and his wife as his portrait was unveiled – a portrait that will now grace the courtroom walls of his hometown in honor of his approaching retirement.
In the sea of well-wishers were three federal judges, a dozen or more Superior Court judges, four judges from the Georgia Court of Appeals, State Senators and Representatives – just to name a few.
The moment was one Judge Ruffin said he could never have predicted, recalling how he worked in a local grocery store on the same block where childhood friend Jerry Daniel put in hours at the fish market. Decades later, that friend became State Court Judge of Burke County – and the very person who requested that Judge Ruffin’s portrait be displayed.
Just weeks after the county commission unanimously approved the display, the veteran judge said he was humbled by the gathering and acknowledgment of his service.
“This has been an exciting journey,” he said, following the unveiling of the portrait.
His passage to where he is today has definitely not been an easy one. He began as a civil rights attorney, where his fight for racial equality led to court-ordered desegregation in Richmond and Burke counties’ school systems. He later served as the first black Superior Court judge in the Augusta Judicial Circuit until 1994, when he was then appointed to the Court of Appeals by Gov. Zell Miller.
Judge Ruffin’s career is marked by a number of other firsts – he was the first black member of the Augusta Bar Association, the first black Court of Appeals chief judge … now he’s the first black son of Burke County to have the distinguished honor of a courtroom portrait.
Recollections shared during Judge Ruffin’s tribute included his love for pecan pie, but more popularly spoken were words of praise and gratitude for a man deemed as “a big deal in Atlanta,” intelligent and, perhaps most importantly, always reasonable.
After the courthouse ceremony, more than 300 guests convened at the office park for a barbeque lunch, where Waynesboro councilman James “Chick” Jones read a proclamation from the City declaring April, 3, 2008 as Judge John H. Ruffin Jr. Day.
“All that I am and have become could not have been done without the goodwill of a lot of you,” Judge Ruffin said, adding that his mother, who was buried about 200 yards away, would not be able to stand the excitement of the day. “My career would not have been what it is if not for a lot of people, black and white … that’s a testament to this community and its citizens … I appreciate the friendship of each of you … I thank you, thank you, thank you.”
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