By Tom Collins
Wrightstown is making a transition from its veteran municipal judge John De Wane to a familiar face in a new role, as former village police chief Perry Kingsbury steps into the court room as the new municipal judge. Recently the Spirit was able to talk to De Wane about his career.
How did you become the municipal judge?
“The truth is, I was the last man standing. Back in the early ‘90s, when the village decided to start a municipal court, they hired a woman from the Outagamie County juvenile court.” (She was attorney Jane Kaftan).
De Wane recalled Kaftan moving from the area when her husband’s career was relocated to another community.
“The village board looked for suitable candidates and contacted the people to see who was interested. They whittled it down to a half dozen. They suggested we sit in on a court session and see what we were getting into. Everyone else backed out after that. I was the last man standing.”
Did you have any background in law or law enforcement?
“No, other than interest I’m a firm believer we are a nation of laws. That’s the best way. Everybody knows what the laws are. Everybody has to be responsible for following them.”
De Wane says he worked as a graphic photographer at Fort Howard Paper Company in Green Bay until he was laid off 11 years ago. That 36-year career was a continuation of an interest in photography that began as a Wrightstown High School junior.
“When the opportunity came along, I jumped in with both feet,” he recalled. “Then I found it was an entirely different kind of photography. I had to learn the process but it was fascinating.”
Graphic photography prepared various designs for projects like napkins and toweling. De Wane was graphic photographer by day, then municipal judge at other times. The years and court cases went quickly and soon the years began to accumulate.
“To be a municipal judge you have to attend yearly seminars. They cover all aspects of the judicial system. It was challenging at first. I was able to gradually get into it.”
He says he was able to avoid one tradition that left cases unresolved for the new judge to grapple with as they came onto the bench.
“I walked in with the idea I’d be facing all this tough stuff. It all dissolves,” he laughs.
Is it hard living in the community and being the municipal judge?
“I have had some instances. People with things not going their way, they’d be yelling and screaming as they walked out of the court session. As in every section of life, you’re going to get some hot heads.”
Were there some difficult cases for you?
“Truancy is always tough. Trying to get someone interested in getting back to school. They think they know all and why bother going to school? It’s hard to convince them it’s what you have to do. If you put the time in, you’ll be surprised what you can get out of it.”
He says some situations, like underage drinking and smoking, are difficult because they are looking at adults who have those habits.
De Wane recalls a lot of his work as municipal judge involved traffic situations.
“I tell people it’s mostly a traffic court. Those are probably the majority of the cases.”
He says a lot of people get speeding tickets or claim they didn’t see a sign. And then there are those who want to contest an apparent violation. One person traveled from Milwaukee to contest the violation.
“He was citing all kinds of statutes and Bible verses,” De Wane recalls. “I knew the statutes quoted were wrong. He wanted to fight but none of it was valid. He ended up still having to pay his fine.”
De Wane recalls the valued assistance he received for the years from former municipal court clerk Sharon Diedrick.
“She kept the place running. I have nothing but praise for the job she did,” De Wane says.
He recalls his time as municipal judge flew by quickly. In the early years, there were elections every two years. Later the term was extended to four years. De Wane notes there was no real campaigning allowed because of the position. He says he talked to people and had asked them to sign his election papers.
“The years flew by fast. A lot of those years, nobody wanted to run against me,” he says.
Election days might be nail biters for some candidates, but not for De Wane.
“I never looked at election results. I didn’t know what the vote margin was. It was name recognition and people knew me,” he says.
What is your favorite memory of your career as municipal judge?
“It involved the juveniles. They were repeat offenders but all of a sudden I didn’t see them anymore. I ran into their parents and they told me how they completely turned around. They think it might be something I said in court,” De Wane says.
“If I said something that struck a chord or a nerve, it brings a smile to my face. I’m glad I could do it,” De Wane adds.
He was municipal judge in Wrightstown for 23 years. Recently, the prospect of another election merged with some feelings that it was time to retire. He decided it was time for someone else to step in.
For about 12 of those 23 years, he combined sometimes long court sessions with his career at Fort Howard. After changes there, he focused on his Wrightstown judicial duties for 11 years. De Wane says he won’t miss a lot of it but is eager to help new municipal judge Perry Kingsbury if he is asked for advice or assistance.
One facet of the job bachelor De Wane always says he enjoyed were the weddings. Those included marrying people at Lambeau Field, Heritage Hill and Pamperin Park, but also in various homes and other locations.
He appreciated the proclamation in his honor recently from the Wrightstown Village Board.
“That was very flattering,” De Wane says. “I’m happy they threw in a little b.s. It was very nice. A gracious and welcomed thing they did.”
De Wane recalls he was looking for a way to help the village when he stepped up to volunteer as a municipal judge candidate 23 years ago.
An anonymous quote suggests something very general about the art of judging.
“When you judge another you don’t define them, you define yourself.”
De Wane defined himself over his judicial career. Now he sets aside his gavel and robes for a new era in his life. From ruling on traffic tickets to performing weddings, he made an impact on the village. His judgments now define him for many people in Wrightstown whose lives were touched by his valued work. De Wane defined himself well for everyone.
By Tom Collins