GREENFIELD – Some who work in the Hancock County Courthouse today can’t remember a judicial system without Richard Culver at its helm.
In that stone fortress of justice and truth, the Hancock Circuit Court judge’s name has become synonymous with compassionate leadership. He listens with a quiet calmness — a fatherly nature, his colleagues say — that commands respect without much trying.
He knows when to stretch out a hand to help those who are struggling, and he knows when to be stern with those who have done wrong too many times.
Now, he’s preparing to say goodbye, and the folks who have worked by his side every day say they’ll try to follow in his footsteps, to carry on in a way that would make him proud.
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After nearly three decades on the bench in Hancock Circuit Court, Culver will step down Oct. 1, though his years of hard work and community service won’t end with retirement.
Culver has taken a position as a deputy in the Henry County Prosecutor’s Office, where he hopes he can continue to crack down on the drug abuse he says lies at the heart of most crimes.
He’s spent his career in Hancock County working to help addicts find the path to a clean life, using his position to order them into rehab programs or incarcerate them if he thought it was in their best interest. In Henry County, he plans to do the same.
He’s excited, he said, to have his feet on the floor of the courtroom again, in front of the bench, to have a chance to uphold the law in a different way. And the attorneys and friends he’ll leave behind in Greenfield say it’ll be an interesting adjustment to have Culver arguing at their side, to have him be “Rick” again rather of “Judge.”
Culver ended up with the circuit court seat through a series of coincidences, he said.
Culver received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin College, graduating with honors in 1980. He’d planned to get a doctorate and become a clinical therapist. But as more and more of his buddies and teachers joked that his quick mind and talent for debate would serve well in a courtroom, Culver considered a career as a lawyer instead.
He went on to study law at Indiana University in Indianapolis, graduating in 1983. While still in school, he took a job as clerk in what is now Allan Wellman McNew Harvey, a law firm sitting in the courthouse plaza. He eventually began practicing with the office and worked there for the next five years.
In those days, everyone treated him like their kid brother, Culver said. Older lawyers were quick to offer advice and hand over cases that helped him gain much-needed experience.
Culver briefly joined then-Prosecutor Terry Snow’s staff as a deputy prosecutor in 1988 until a local judge, a close friend and mentor, retired and asked the governor to appoint Culver his replacement.
He worked in the prosecutor’s office for just three months in 1988 — “I barely got the seat warm,” he joked — before he was appointed judge that same year of what was then called Hancock County Court.
Culver was elected Hancock County Superior Court 2 judge in 1990 and again in 1996. In 2000, he was elected to preside over Hancock Circuit Court, and he’s remained to judicial officer there ever since. Along the way, he assisted with athletics at Greenfield-Central High School, coaching the football, track and soccer teams that his two sons, Jacob and Benjamin, participated in.
Those years, when he sat on the bench and the sidelines, helped solidify his reputation as a community-focused leader, longtime friend former state Sen. Beverly Gard said. He taught lessons on the field and in the courtroom, left impressions in people’s minds and on their hearts, she said.
“He embodies the kind of person you want your kids to be associated with,” Gard said. “He’s shown he’s committed to bettering the community he’s part of. He’s the finest individual I’ve ever met.”
When Culver was reelected most recently in 2012, he told his constituents it would be his final six-year term on the bench. He promised that once he reached 30 years, he’d step down.
And he nearly made it.
By his last day in circuit court, he’ll have racked up 29 years of public service.
During his time as judge, Culver has worked to emphasize problem-solving over punishment as a way to cut down on re-offending in Hancock County. He is credited with constructing programs that push for court-ordered treatment to resolve substance abuse cases, most notable among them being Hancock County Drug Court and the Hancock County Heroin Protocol.
Culver believes that by helping users, by getting them the treatment and counseling they need, they’ll learn to overcome their addictions and come to lead healthier lives.
Now, as he heads to Henry County, he’ll turn his attention to the dealers themselves. He’ll prosecute their crimes as strictly as the law will allow, locking them away and cutting off their business, he said.
It’ll be odd to see Culver in the courtroom in this different capacity, local attorney Christopher Smith said.
Though most of his work keeps him in Hancock County, Smith at times ventures across the eastern county line to handle a case or two throughout the year. On these occasions, he anticipates he’ll run into Culver, where he’ll be “just another attorney in the trenches,” Smith joked.
But he’s sure Culver will be as a fair a prosecutor as he has been a judge, he said.
“I have never known law without Judge Culver,” Smith said. “It’ll be a bit disconcerting, and it’s going to take some getting used to. But he has a tremendous legacy in this county, … and I’m proud to have worked with him.”