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Calming, compassionate approach marks Richard Culver’s career on bench

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GREENFIELD — Richard Culver has a quiet way about him; so quiet, in fact, you sometimes have to lean forward just to hear him.

But whether he’s addressing attorneys in the courtroom or athletes on the football field, his audiences always something in common.

When Culver talks, they listen.

On Dec. 15, Hancock County’s circuit court judge took what he says will be his final oath of office. When he retires at the conclusion of his last six-year term, in 2018, he’ll have 30 years on the bench.

He hopes during that time, he’s said a few things worth remembering.

Culver, 54, is known for being compassionate, the kind of person – not just judge – who never wants to give up on someone.

“I think that, by really caring about people, you can bring, I guess, humanity to the law,” he said.

Culver completed his undergraduate studies at Franklin College, where he graduated with magna cum laude honors in 1980. He went on to study law at Indiana University, and after graduating in 1983, practiced at a local law office for the next five years.

Culver briefly joined then-Prosecutor Terry Snow’s staff as a deputy prosecutor in 1988 before being appointed judge that same year of what was then called Hancock County Court.

It was there he found his calling.

“I would say the most rewarding times are when you feel as if you’ve been able to help someone rehabilitate,” he said. “You help a mom and dad, and you ended up helping a kid because you take the violence out of the home and give them a clean, sober mom and dad. That can be very rewarding.”

Culver was elected Hancock County Superior Court 2 judge in 1990 and again in 1996. That year, he was also awarded the National Adjudication Award from the President’s Commission Against Impaired Driving.

Culver was elected in 2000 to preside over Hancock Circuit Court, where he has remained ever since.

Culver serves on the Judicial Conference Ethics Committee and is a past member of the conference board of directors.

While Culver can bring court to a stop with one sharp crack of his gavel, he’s never seen himself as someone holding power over others.

He considers his role more that of a master of ceremonies – occasionally, referee.

“And sometimes coach, particularly on juvenile cases,” he said.

Culver’s knack for encouraging others to do their best isn’t limited to the courtroom, friends say. In fact, his kind, encouraging nature made him a natural choice to assist with athletics at Greenfield-Central High School, G-C Athletic Director Kevin Horrigan said.

When Horrigan came to G-C in 2002, Culver was already helping coach the freshman football team.

Horrigan was impressed with what he saw.

“You can either command respect or you can demand respect,” Horrigan said. “I would say, in Rick’s case, he has the ability to command respect.”

So when Horrigan needed a new track coach, Culver was a natural choice. Culver served as head track coach from 2006 to 2011.

He remains one of the school’s assistant football coaches and still volunteers to help out with the track team as well.

Culver treats his athletes no differently than those who make their way through his courtroom, always encouraging, pushing when necessary, Horrigan said.

Horrigan said Culver especially has a knack for working with the freshman players.

“You got kids that are just coming in off of eighth grade,” he said. “He had a very calming influence upon them, was very much a fatherly type and able to help them with that transition.

That fatherly nature comes from experience.

Culver and his wife, Paula, are the parents of two sons, Jacob and Benjamin.

Jacob, 20, was 14 when his brother, Benjamin, was killed in a car accident.

Culver’s devotion to his family is clear. In his office, the bookshelves are lined with law books, but the desk in front of him is practically a shrine to his boys.

Beneath plate glass are perfectly preserved mementos from the boys’ childhood. There are photos, letters and birthday cards, including a handmade one Benjamin made his father when the boy was about 4 years old, if Culver’s memory serves him right.

No matter how tough a case Culver has on the desk before him, what matters most is always right there alongside it.

“You always just have to focus on what’s important,” he said. “... There are times we see the ugly side of humanity. It’s important to stay grounded.”

It’s sometimes hard to leave work at work, he said.

“I carry a lot of that stress home with me, because you know, you worry,” he said. “… You feel the most sorry for the weakest members of society.”

Benjamin’s accident in 2006 affected Culver profoundly, and he admits the loss is part of what has led to his leaving the bench.

Parents usually set the bar for their children when it comes to behavior, but Culver insists with Benjamin, it was always the other way around. Benjamin never smoked or drank, and he uttered a cuss word just once at the insistence of members of his soccer team who were teasing him for always being so polite.

“He set kind of the standard for character,” Culver said. “Can’t say that I have ever lived up to the high standard that he set.”

Culver does just as much bragging on Jacob, a sophomore at Ball State who has aspirations to go on to graduate school and become a scientist.

Culver hopes by the time he retires, Jacob might have made him a grandpa.

Culver doesn’t know exactly what’s in store for his future, career-wise – he has six years to think about it, after all – but he hopes it involves a lot of family time and maybe some private practice to keep his law skills sharp.

Culver said he’s considered a number of avenues for his career post 2018, including working in the prosecutor’s office or doing criminal defense work.

He enjoys fighting for the underdog, he said.

“There’s still a little bit of a social worker in me,” he said.

Culver looks forward to passionately fighting for one side of a case.

“When you’re the attorney, you’re the advocate,” he said. “We miss that part of it. As a judge, you’re more concerned with making sure is everybody playing fair.”

But having a front-row seat to the courtroom drama is one thing he already knows he’ll miss.

“I don’t have to watch it on TV,” he said. “I get the best seat in the house. If I’m not involved, I guess that’s what I would miss most.”

Wayne Addison, head of the Hancock County Probation Department, is one who knows Culver both on and off the bench.

Professionally, the pair must work, hand in hand, as defendants make their way from Culver’s courtroom to Addison’s probation office.

But they are friends as well as co-workers. Outside the courthouse, they enjoy working together as assistant coaches for the G-C freshman football team.

Addison said the players’ opinion about Culver says more about his character than anything else.

“These kids will do anything for this guy,” he said.

Culver and Addison also share another bond; Addison’s son, Kyle Addison, was Benjamin’s best friend.

That’s why Kyle, 23, took special pride in presenting Culver with the Greenfield Rotary Club Community Service Award last year.

Kyle had tipped off Culver’s wife in advance but kept the award a surprise for its recipient.

“I asked Paula, like, ‘Hey, would you want to go to lunch with me?’ I said, ‘Well, Rick, you can come, too, if you’d like,” he said.

Culver never saw it coming – a mark of his humble nature, friends said.

“He just thought we were just getting together, eating lunch and everything,” Kyle said. “It definitely caught him off guard.”

Culver was the ideal recipient for a community service award because his influence reaches far beyond the courtroom, said Kyle, who also helps his father and Culver coach at the high school.

As for the legacy he leaves behind, Culver hopes it is one of humility and fairness.

Culver will be 61 when he retires. He doesn’t see himself running for elected office again.

As for the future of the county circuit court, he’s ready to pass the torch.

“I’m sure there are some young lawyers in town who’d like to be judge,” he said. “Might be nice to let them have their turn.”

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