Judge John Cherry
Helping People Become Who They Were Meant to Be
Sitting in his chambers in the Dauphin County Courthouse on a recent Monday morning, the judge points to a brown, worn poster hanging on the wall.
“He’s why I am who I am,” he says.
The framed poster depicts the man the judge has always strived to be like – his father. In bold letters it declares “John Cherry for President Judge.”
Cherry, 63, always starts his own story with that of his father’s because he believes he gets to serve thanks to the values the senior Cherry instilled in him.
In fact, it’s tough to get Cherry to talk about himself at all.
Instead, he deflects to the people who inspire him most, showering praise on those who influenced him, raised him and led him to a position he is humbled to hold.
He calls his father’s story a typical “rags to riches” tale, but the riches are not the bank dollars one counts at the end of the day. The riches of the Cherry family are locked in their hearts.
As the son of an Italian immigrant and the third oldest of 10 children, John Cherry, Sr. fought hard to become a Dubois lawyer and later a Clearfield County judge.
On Saturday mornings after breakfast, the senior Cherry would invite his son to join him for the rest of the day at his law office. As a boy, the young Cherry would sit in the office library and watch the bustle of everyone around him. The smell of old books and pipe tobacco lingers in his memory.
His story is put on pause that Monday morning by the blaring of sirens. A weapon was reportedly brought into the courthouse and everyone must leave. Cherry grabs a cigar and follows his staff down the stairs to the lawn on Front Street. His wife hates the things, he confesses, but he’s got quite a collection of smokes.
Cherry counts everyone as he goes, not wanting to leave anyone behind.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he says, laughing on his way out.
As he passes people outside – clerks and janitors, lawyers and receptionists – they reach out and grab his hand. He takes the time to greet them personally – how are their children, is the new grandbaby healthy, what about that upcoming vacation? They’re all wonderful people, he says. He calls them his “true friends.”
As the commotion dies down, Cherry returns to his story. He holds the unlit cigar in between his lips and twirls it around, getting a taste of the tobacco without the smoky draw.
He looks at the water fountain in front of the courthouse and smiles.
“God gave the fountain of justice. Men must preserve its purity.”
The quote etched in the stone has always been a favorite of his. He remembers the first day he walked into the courthouse and saw those words. He was a senior at Dickinson College of Law and was hired as a clerk at the Dauphin County Courthouse.
He parked his car at City Island, when it cost just a $1, he says, and walked across the bridge to the stairs that would lead to his future. And he looked at the quote and wondered how amazing it would be if he could serve under those inspiring words as the district attorney.
“I never really believed that would have been possible,” Cherry says.
Ten years later, what he thought was a fleeting dream would become a reality.
At 11:49 a.m. on Dec. 23, 1993, Cherry got the call that he was appointed to replace District Attorney Richard Lewis. He remembers hearing the words and staring at the time on the phone. He still considers it the greatest professional day of his life.
He would serve as the district attorney for Dauphin County for six years until he was elected to the bench in 1999 and retained in 2009.
Cherry has always believed he has the chance to do a great deal of good as a judge. Sometimes, that means giving someone a second – sometimes even a third – chance at life.
His most memorable case involves a 17-year-old man who he sent to Glen Mills Schools for troubled teenagers.
“The problem is we do what we can for these kids, and then we throw them back in the mud puddle,” Cherry says. Without a support system or a way to better themselves, many juveniles will wind up back in the system, he says.
The teenager, who Cherry declines to name, came back to the courts for a six-month review and told Cherry he wanted to join the Army after graduation. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to join with his record, the young man asked Cherry to expunge it.
He told the young man that, upon graduation, he was to go to community college, get a job and come back in a year. If he truly had changed his life, Cherry would expunge his record. The man did as Cherry advised, and a year later, the judge kept his promise. And then he forgot about him.
Three years later, opening Christmas presents and eating desserts, Cherry and his staff were interrupted when a guard came to the door. A mother and her son were waiting outside.
“Can’t we be left alone for one moment?” asked Cherry, remembering his response.
He looked down the hall as his secretary and the mother walked ahead of the son. Tears streamed down the faces of each woman, and they parted to reveal an Army soldier in full uniform. He returned to give his thanks.
“His mother never gave up on him, Glen Mills never gave up on him and he never gave up on himself,” Cherry says. “I, too, would not give up on him.”
When he thinks back over his years on the bench, Cherry travels back to the night before he was sworn in. After a party at his parents’ home, long after his father had died, he sat in the living room and looked at the photo of the man he has always strived to be like the most.
The judge tells the story of his father because he believes that whatever is in your fabric, whatever means the most to you in life, is what you bring to the practice of law. He remembers his father telling him, “You’re not the Messiah,” and reminding his son that he can’t fix everything or everyone.
“I prayed that night that I would do the right thing as a judge,” Cherry says. “I want to help people become who they were meant to be. And I hope that’s what I’ve done.”