To those walking into Hamilton County Criminal Court for the first time, Bob Ball's lumbering frame and gruff voice could intimidate.
Each day, as Judge Don Poole worked through the day's docket, talking with lawyers and defendants, Ball kept notes on cases while simultaneously hushing the crowd and looking for those who broke the rules and tried to sneak a peek at their cellphones during court proceedings.
Defendants or family members who showed up late to court and crept meekly to ask Ball about their case got a quick response. "Go out to the hallway," he'd grumble.
But as soon as the judge took a break and left the bench, Ball was quick to tell the crowd, "Now you can talk all you want to."
Over his 32-year career as bailiff, his stern bearing served to keep order in the court and help the confused while his jokes brought laughter to lawyers and court staff.
Ball, 85, retired last week and, his career trajectory, which began in the military in the late 1940s, marks the journey of the archetypal 20th Century American male, a path unlikely for many of those now working.
He grew up the youngest of five children in Tucumcari, N.M., a small town near the stateline with Texas. ter graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1946. Before retiring after 20 years, he rose to the rank of senior master sergeant.
While stationed in Mobile, Ala., he made friends with Master Sgt. Wally West, a Chattanooga native. He came to Chattanooga to visit West and found a lifetime connection.
"Well, I met his sister and I haven't forgave him for that yet," Ball laughs.
This year, he and Liz Ball will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary.
Along the his trip through life, he had his brush with history. He served 18 months in southern Turkey in the CIA detachment that also included famed U2 spyplane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who made international news when was shot down over the USSR in 1960 before returning to the United States in 1962. During his time serving in Turkey, Ball played poker with the Powers and other airmen during down time and he's quick to note that, while they served together, they were hardly close friends.
After his military stint, Ball and his wife settled in Chattanooga. He started real estate work in 1966 and joined the Masons in 1968. Joining the civic group and later being saved in the church turned his life around, Ball said.
"My wife didn't know I drank until I came home sober one night," he says.
By 1978, Ball had been self-employed in real estate for more than a decade when a fellow Mason called him. Judge Don Moore had served as Hamilton County's last county judge, the head of the county in the old form of government, but that year the government changed from a judge to a county executive.
But Moore had four years left on his term and needed a bailiff. The job didn't have great pay but Ball liked the steady schedule and the people. Coupled with his military retirement check, the bailiff's pay made it work.
When Moore's term ended, Ball received a call from Criminal Court Judge Russell Henson who needed a bailiff. Ball moved over to Henson's courtroom, then later to Judge Stephen Bevil and finally to Poole in 2006.
Each morning during all those years, Liz has made him a ham and cheese sandwich and packed a can of V8 for his lunchtime meal. And each day he spread the newspaper out on the defense table in the quiet, locked courtroom, reading its articles and eating his lunch.
But during Wednesday's lunch, court staff threw him a surprise retirement party. Poole called Ball his friend as judges, lawyers and court staff applauded the octogenarian in a jury room amid candles, balloons and a white sheet cake.
"Some people who work look forward to Friday," Poole said. "Some people who work look forward to Monday. Bob Ball looks forward to Monday, and I know he's going to miss this."
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...