By Diane White McNaughton • Photo By John Bivins Photography
You can be forgiven if you thought you were seeing double at the Dauphin County inaugural ceremony on Jan. 2 at the Hilton Harrisburg.
You may have glimpsed flowing black robes, shorn gray hair, and a touch of tanned scalp, and heard the sounds of a gruff but humorous jokester.
It was Judge Cherry. And…. it was Judge Cherry.
John F. Cherry, a judge on the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, was retained by the voters last November. His younger brother, Paul E., is a judge on the Clearfield County Court of Common Pleas, who was retained in 2013, to remain on the bench until at least 2023. Put them together, and it’s like a double mirror.
John was first elected as a judge in November of 1999, and is now the county’s President Judge, Dauphin County’s 27th.
At this year’s inauguration for John, Paul administered the oath of office to his older brother. It was the least he could do, since John had sworn him in.
Who swore in who better? Who’s to judge?
And what in their DNA predestined two lookalike brothers to both become county judges? This may be a case of heredity and environment combining forces for the greater good, advancing liberty and justice for all, times two.
It all starts with yet a third Judge Cherry—their dad, the late John A. Cherry, who was their patriarch and role model, and who first donned the black robes more than 57 years ago.
“He was the greatest man I’ve ever known,” John says. “He never forgot where he came from.”
Reflecting upon his idyllic childhood in a close-knit railroad town in DuBois, he adds, “We were never rich. We were rich here,” he says, pointing to his heart. His dad won a Clearfield County judgeship by a landslide in 1963 even though he was not the endorsed candidate.
When Dauphin County’s “Judge John” was asked how he ascended to the bench, he recounts story after story—not about himself, but his dad.
Cherry is soft-spoken, as the roar of traffic on Market and Second Streets sometimes drowns out his recalled memories and grateful tributes. He holds an unlit cigar in his hand, and a Notre Dame mug rests proudly on his heavy wooden desk, piled high with documents and family photos. A call from his tailor interrupts to inform him that his two Notre Dame pants from his wife Camille (also an accomplished attorney) are now ready for pick-up. (“She got the A’s, I passed,” Cherry jokes.)
He himself did not attend Notre Dame, like fellow Judges Ed Marsico and Bill Tully, but he is a huge fan. He paraphrases Fighting Irish coach Lou Holtz: “The only way I was getting in to Notre Dame was as head coach or with a ticket.”
Instead, he majored in European History at Gannon University in Erie, where he focused on the Renaissance and Reformation. He is still close to his teachers, professors, and their families.
He often marvels that he is sitting where he is, and chalks it up to his extended family for their loving involvement in his upbringing, along with the judges who came before him.
He also extols the inspiration of so many now-retired and deceased judges: Judges Warren Morgan (“He ran the tightest courtroom ever,”) Jack Dowling (“He taught me scholarship,”) Sebastian Natale (“He never forgot the common touch,”) Herb Schaffner (a veteran and a “man’s man,”) and Clarence Morrison (the grandson of sharecroppers who “defied all the odds of bigotry and hatred but never let it taint his approach.”)
A 1969 graduate of DuBois High School, John worked as a teacher, coach and high school administrator before deciding to go to The Dickinson School of Law.
Over the course of his career, he was a Deputy District Attorney, District Attorney, Deputy Attorney General and an attorney at the private law firm of Goldberg, Katzman and Shipman. He was appointed district attorney in December of 1993 and elected for the first time in 1995.
Paul’s path is remarkably similar.
From Italy to America
“It has to start in the beginning with my grandfather James Cherry, a teenage immigrant from Naples, Italy,” John says. His grandfather had no formal education; his hero was Teddy Roosevelt. His grandmother was Sicilian-born.
Cherry’s father John was one of 10 children, and the first to go to college. Cherry’s “Uncle Joe” was the oldest, and never married. Uncle Joe ran a successful gas station and paid for his family members to attend college, law school, dental and medical school.
“He was the most unselfish person I have ever met,” John says.
In the 1930s, “Uncle Joe” escorted his beloved mom to a spacious home, handed her the key, and said, “It’s yours, Mama.”
Money was not the only obstacle facing the Cherry family.
“Let there be no mincing of words. There was a great deal of bigotry in those days,” Cherry recalls. “They had to fight double to get what they earned.”
He learned to never criticize anyone based on their race, religion, or socioeconomic reality.
Cherry’s dad and five brothers all fought valiantly in World War II. His dad shuttered his law office and went to war. His father was in Nice when France was liberated; Uncle Ed, the Ardennes; Uncle George, the Battle of Midway; and Uncle Rock, a boxer, was in Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. Uncle Francis, Cherry’s godfather, and Uncle Skip were stateside.
Uncle Ed was wounded and awarded the Bronze Star. He lost most of his hearing and walked with a limp from his extensive war injuries but never complained, John recalls. Uncle Ed became his dad’s law partner. He had once wanted to work in the brother’s gas station, but his brother wouldn’t permit it.
Uncle Joe insisted that Uncle Ed go to law school. It was teacher Miss Esther Marshall who predicted that John A. Cherry would be “a great man” someday.
A Clear Path in Clearfield County
John remembers growing up in rural, small-town DuBois with fondness. “For a kid, it was paradise, but part of it was because of our families.”
Summers were filled with crowded family picnics, where bottomless plates of homemade pasta and other homemade delicacies were served up.
In his childhood home, with five boys in the house, John got up early, did his chores, ate breakfast, played ball, biked through his newspaper route, and played “kick the can” at night. Often brother Paul or Geno would come with him to deliver papers. During school, he always did homework.
Because five of his aunts and uncles were within a block of his home, he would often eat a second dinner at their homes.
Paul was younger, but is still known to bill himself as the “smarter and better-looking Cherry.”
“I know it sounds like some old-fashioned movie, but it was,” John says.
“I owe so much to my parents but also to my aunts and uncles. Their front doors, refrigerator doors, and doors to their hearts were always open to me. What a gift it was.”
At the end of every semester in grade school, the Cherry family had the traditional reading of the report cards, with all the aunts, uncles and assorted other relatives close at hand. In a sea of 97s, a grade of 92 in arithmetic was cause for concern. He may still have gotten a quarter for his report card, but with it came an admonition to bring up that 92.
“I came from a teenage shoemaker with no education. I can’t forget that,” Cherry says. “We owe everything to our grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles. They took an interest in everything we did.”
When Cherry ran track, six or seven uncles would be there at the meet.
Dad always taught him: “It costs you nothing to be kind,” and “You are no better than anyone else.”
John identifies two saints in the family: the late Dickinson School of Law Dean Walter Harrison Hitchler, and elementary school teacher Miss Esther Marshall, who saw promise in all the Cherry children.
Today, Judge John and wife Camille have five grandchildren and 11 nieces and nephews. Their oldest son, John, is a lawyer and Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps. Vincent is an ICU Nurse and clinical professor.
My Father, The Judge
From a young age, Cherry’s dad would take him, the eldest son, to the law office with him.
His dad worked at the gas station for two years, then went to law school in 1933.
At school, the senior Cherry approached Dean Hitchler and explained that his brother Joe was putting him though school. He said he was one of 10 children and asked if he could scrub floors.
Not only did the Dean give him a job mopping floors, he offered the law student a room in his home.
Together, they would often go to the theater so the Dean could see which law students were going to the movies instead of studying.
“He saw all the promise (in my dad). He was a great evaluator of character.”
At the holidays, Cherry’s grandmom told his dad to invite the Dean for Christmas vacation.
Cherry was worried. The family was poor and lived above a shoe store, and he feared the Dean’s discovery of those realities.
The Dean wound up coming for a week at Christmastime and many, thereafter, and was moved by the heart-warming family dynamics.
He told Cherry to never be ashamed of where he came from: “This is a home—a real home that I never had.”
Judge John Cherry said he also remembers his father being sworn in as a judge 57 years ago.
He explains while he was peddling newspapers, he had posters of his father on the front and back of his bike as he did his part in the campaigning.
He also remembers that his father was never changed by his office.
“He was still the son of an immigrant boy who came here looking for success. He lived the principles he preached and taught us the same values,” he says.
Paul also carries on the family’s values. He is supported by wife Laurie, and daughters, Gina, Melissa, and Carla, and son, Nick. Paul says he wanted to be a judge since first grade.
He graduated from DuBois Central Christian High School, Gannon University in Erie and the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle.
Prior to being elected judge in 2003, Paul served as Clearfield County’s district attorney for more than nine years and as a public defender for more than six years.
Dauphin County’s Judge John Cherry came to Dickinson in 1980. He taught and coached from 1973 to 1980.
“I’ve got to at least try. I wanted to be like Dad,” he says.
That legacy continues, as his nephew Nick is the 18th Cherry to enroll in law school, Nick being in his second year at Dickinson.
Judge John Today
“When lawyers address you as ‘Your Honor,’ it isn’t just a title,” John says.
They are representing “real clients, real people and real problems, something they are probably thinking about day and night.
“They expect that you will listen to them with honor, be fair to both parties, make sure all parties have been heard, and then make a decision based upon the evidence.”
He tries to treat everyone with courtesy and kindness.
“Not everything is black and white…sometimes you have to blow the smoke away.”
Today’s modern-day Cherry family gatherings, populated by judges and lawyers, are not cerebral discussions of legal arguments and thorny cases.
He raves about Camille’s culinary skills. And “My brother is quite a comedian,” Cherry says of Paul. “We have a good time.”
At work, “Dad taught us to treat all people fairly under the law,” he said adding that he “brought a firm hand to the courtroom.”
John remembers being a law clerk for then-District Attorney and now Judge Richard Lewis and walking in front of the Courthouse statue, which reads: “God created the fountain of justice. Man must preserve its purity.”
He also quotes Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn: “Men who govern without God will soon be governed by tyrants.”
He does a gut check, not just every Sunday in the sacred silence of church, but every day, to make sure he is doing the right thing.
One of his signature lines is: “Not every case is the Lindbergh kidnapping.” Some lawyers make cases far more complex than they need to be, to the detriment of their clients, he notes.
Recently, Cherry served on a panel at Dickinson with other judges, and seemed to summarize his views on judicial service, lawyering and public service in one small session. He told first-year law students, “This isn’t TV.
“You have a duty to act for the client. It is important to respect everyone, from entry-level staff on up. “You need them all.”
Again that saying: “It costs you nothing to be kind.”
And for the push to be the best? As former Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz said, “Those who know Notre Dame, no explanations are necessary. Those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.”
His mantra remains the philosophy shared by his dad and brothers: “God, family, country.” His dad was the epitome of those values.
“I’m a work in progress.”