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Courthouse retirement leaves decades of memories

  • Priscilla Russell waits as her longtime boss, Chatham County Superior Court Chief Judge Michael Karpf, signs legal documents at the Chatham County Courthouse. She will retire on Friday. (Jan Skutch/Savannah Morning News)

Priscilla Russell means it this time.

Russell completed her career as judicial administrative assistant to Chatham County Superior Court Chief Judge Michael Karpf and retired this past Friday.

It will be her second “retirement” from a position at the courthouse after serving with Karpf and retired District Attorney Spencer Lawton Jr.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I have a lot of other things I want to do.”

But her connection with Karpf long outdates the courthouse.

On Dec. 7, 1974, the 1971 graduate of Savannah High School left a post with the Savannah-Chatham board of education, to join two friends and attorneys Karpf and Lawton in their private law practice.

In fact, Karpf asked his wife, Susan, if she would ask Russell, who worked for her, if she knew anyone who would be interested in working as a legal secretary for the new team.

“You mean anyone besides me?” Karpf recalled of Russell’s reaction.

Karpf would later move to the Chatham County Courthouse in 1979 and judgeships on Recorder’s Court, State Court and finally to Superior Court in 1993.

Meanwhile, Russell stayed behind with Lawton until he unseated Chatham County District Attorney Andrew J. Ryan III in 1980. She went with him in a newly created position of legal secretary, later upgraded in 1993 to assistant to the district attorney for legal support services.

She remained with Lawton until he chose not to seek re-election in 2008 and retired.

“We grew up together,” Russell reflected on her time with Karpf and Lawton. “I got some excellent bosses. You couldn’t ask for any better.”

“We’ve come a long way together,” Karpf said Wednesday. “We were two young lawyers just starting out with little experience and we hired a secretary who had no legal training and together we learned our craft.”

“It seems pretty fitting to me that Spencer and I started off really newly in our profession and ended up with the same situation relying on Priscilla,” Karpf said.“I will certainly miss her, but I understand when it’s time to retire it’s time to retire. She’s been a great person to work with all these years.”

Early retirement

When new DA Larry Chisolm took office in January 2009, he offered Russell an opportunity to re-apply for her job but for less money.

She declined and remained until Feb. 23, 2009, when she retired.

Freshly retired, she volunteered at Hospice Savannah and ran an oak tree farm with her husband of almost 44 years, Perry, on her Black Creek property in Bryan County.

Perry retired at the end of 2009.

But Russell wasn’t ready to hang it up.

Karpf lost his administrative assistant, Grace Crovatt to knee surgery in early 2011, and she called Russell, asking her to “temp” for Karpf.

“If seems like I ended up staying two months when it was going to be one,” Russell recalled.

But then Crovatt decided to retire, and she called Russell to tell her Karpf was interested in her returning full time.

She left her husband to run the tree farm, quipping, “He retired. I came back to work.”

She returned in January 2011, become full time in July that year.

Lawton connection

Lawton, who spent 34 years with Russell together before he retired in 2008, said that one of the things that has given him the most satisfaction is that Russell started with him and Karpf at the beginning of their respective legal careers and she will finish her career with Karpf.

“It is particularly gratifying that we’ve closed the circle in his way,” Lawton said. “She’s is the very essence of professionalism, poise and discretion. She lends dignity to everything she does.”

Russell, he said, “is an invaluable part of the judicial system and will be missed.”

Next step

Russell has reared two young attorneys, but is ready to pursue other adventures.

Last week, Russell, 63, helped her successor, former Superior Court deputy clerk Tamara Bennett-Thompson, cut her teeth on a new career with Karpf.

The Savannah native has two grown children and four grandchildren who have scattered across several states. Her retirement plans include visiting them.

“I’ll miss the people, but not the work,” Russell said.

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