Column – Bob Edwards left his mark on bench, on community

Published 6:12 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Memories of Judge Robert B. Edwards (Bob) are as numerous and varied as his friends and associates. Everyone who knew Bob can recall something, invariably pleasant, about this scholarly, kind and gentlemanly man.

The image that Anne and I will always have is of Bob showing up at the newspaper on Wednesday morning just after we opened at 8 a.m. to pick up the new Smithfield Times. He had a subscription, probably for his entire life, and it was routed to his business post office box. He didn’t wait for the papers to be put up in postal boxes, though. He wanted to walk in, pick up a fresh copy, pay for it, exchange pleasantries with our receptionist and often drop in to share some bit of information, often from some book he had just read.

Even when a fairly rare form of Parkinson’s crippled him, Bob would slowly come in, using a walking stick.

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I mention this vision because memories similar to it are held by hundreds of local people. Until he literally was unable to walk, Bob Edwards maintained a daily routine that took him to the Post Office and to his law office, located directly across Institute Street. He was one of the most familiar figures on Main Street, always cheerful, always speaking to everyone he encountered, many of whom he had known for years during his more than eight decades as a county native and resident.

He is remembered by local sportsmen as a doggone good wing shot, as well as a very successful fisherman. He liked nothing better than being afield or on the water. He will also be remembered by his neighbors and many others as a successful gardener who raised gorgeous roses as a hobby and took them to work regularly to be shared with courthouse staff.

But it was as a General District Court judge that Bob Edwards brought all the elements of his personality to bear, and his more than three decades on the bench are now, and hopefully will be for decades, remembered as a model for judicial wisdom and rectitude.

Judge Edwards was a lower court judge, dealing primarily with traffic offenses and assorted misdemeanors, including an unimaginable array of neighbor disputes. 

He had all the skills necessary to make him a legend in his work. He could be firm. He would fine you or even send you to jail if he thought the crime and your attitude merited it. But he would do so after politely listening to you tell your tale, giving you his full attention right up to the end.

And he could be Solomonic, knowing when the letter of the law didn’t fully fit the situation before him or the way he should handle it. 

Veteran Isle of Wight Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Edwards recalled this week that one defendant came before Judge Edwards without a lawyer and, representing himself, made a complete confession while explaining some problems that he was going through. Judge Edwards listened politely, then said, “If the General Assembly wanted to appoint a machine or a computer to do this job, they can do so, but I am going to find you not guilty.”

He also could bring his dry wit to bear. An older county resident, who had been in trouble for numerous minor offenses most of his life, appeared before Judge Edwards one day and, as he walked forward, the judge asked, “What brings you here today?

To which the defendant, whom the judge had known for years, said, “They done got me for fishing without a license.”

“Well, it seems like you’re improving,” Judge Edwards said. “I’m going to dismiss this. Just make sure you get a license next time.”

That good humor was a part of him on and off the bench. He named his fishing boat “Misdemeanor.”

Prosecutor Edwards spent more time with Judge Edwards in the courtroom than most anyone other than the clerks, and summed up the gentle giant’s attributes like this:

“Two things set him apart — his extraordinary intellect and the fact that he was utterly devoid of arrogance. He had none himself and he did not appreciate it in any form in the courtroom. He was a law and order judge, but he seemed to take a bit of private pleasure in ruling against the wishes of an arrogant cop or attorney. The profound respect that he showed everyone in court, day in, day out, was something that he put on like his robe. It was a core part of his being.”

Steve Edwards added that Judge Edwards “was a judge from a different time. He was part of the community. He knew, and called, people by their first name. Today we have fallen prey to the idea that judges must, above all, preserve the appearance of propriety by being so separate and isolated from the community that one could never imagine a judge wearing anything but a robe. He (Bob) understood that if one adhered to advancing the reality of propriety, then its appearance would take care of itself.”

Bob’s passing ends not a single life, but the life of a team. Bob’s wife, Verne, died last August, and one of them cannot be remembered without the other. Together, they made an impact on the community that will live long after them. 

They were deeply involved on a personal level. If there was a Little Theatre play, a concert, a lecture or any other worthwhile activity, they would be there. If there was a dramatization at the old courthouse, Verne was apt to be wearing a hoop skirt and playing a role.

Bob and Verne created a scholarship fund that will continue helping deserving young people attend college for years to come. They also created the Edwards Charitable Trust, in memory of Bob’s mother, and through it provided annual donations to a variety of local charities. 

Money from that trust has, for example, been the primary source of funds to pay for the Summer Concert Series for nearly 20 years. It’s an event that Bob’s mother, a Main Street resident, attended weekly when she was still able to do so.

In short, these were two remarkable people and one remarkable team. Their presence among us made this a far better place to live. They are, and will be, deeply missed.  


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is