'He taught me how to be strong'

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Longtime judge dies

 For more than three decades, John Booth had an impact on the lives of residents from Sumter and surrounding counties - hundreds - thousands of lives as he served as judge for Fifth Judicial Circuit.

He spent 31 years as the circuit judge for Sumter, Citrus, Lake, Marion and Hernando counties.

Sumter sheriff’s deputy and former head bailiff Jimmie Little is on of the people who is pretty confident about really knowing who Booth.  While he saw him for years as a judge, handing down sentence after sentence, Little also knew Booth as a caring and compassionate man.

Booth, 94, passed away on Wednesday, May 20.

As a judge, Little watched as Booth would prepare to hand a sentence down and knew how seriously his boss took his job- especially in murder trials.

“You could see it in his eyes,” Little said of the challenge that Booth faced.

“But he knew he had to do it.”

He said he believes one of the hardest cases for Booth involved the murder of a child.

“Judge Booth had two little girls - anything with a child hurt his heart.”

Another of the harder cases was one that involved the murder of a pregnant woman.

“It was a very, very high tension trial - a lot of emotion. You could see the strain on his face.”

There were some rare times when Booth would make a decision that Little might not have understood, but then he would learn that Booth had information he hadn’t been privy to and see the reasoning.

“He hired me personally, to serve as bailiff,  I started working for him 1988, up to the day he retired.”

Little said Booth was a man who cared.

Booth put Little to work on security for the courthouse. In those early years, security went in on the second and third floors, where the courtrooms were, from a scanner to an X-ray machine, according to Little.

Over the years, Little has taken guns and walked people back to the courthouse to put their weapons away.

Little, Roger Hayes and Frank Isaacs were the main bailiffs back then, with help from the Sumter County Detention Center staff.

Booth presided over every type of case from robberies and murders to civil issues.

On a personal level, “When my father passed away, he sure took care of me. I saw a side that nobody saw.”

“We fished - he was like my dad and it still hurts,” Little said, the emotion clear in his voice.

One of them called the other at least once a week.

“I got my strength - he taught me how to be strong.”

He also taught Little how to listen.

“He was a very quiet man. He didn’t say much to anybody, he  talked to  me because we became close.

And Little said it was Booth who advised him, “Be quiet  and you’ll learn things. If you talk too much you’ll never learn anything.”

“He was a very special person in my life.”

But along with the cases and the strength to pass down sentences, Booth had a sense of humor.

Little recalled one afternoon in particular.

“It was raining,” and Booth was talking with then chief, Ed Galvin.

Booth’s Jeep was parked in the main parking lot and he sent Little down to move it closer to the building.

“I get to the car, unlock it , get in and turn the car on. The whole seats starts vibrating.”

Not knowing what was going on, Little jumped out of the Jeep and looked up at the window to the courtroom on the upper floor, to see Booth and Galvin laughing.

These days, Little is still serving at the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office and missing his boss, his fishing buddy, his role model and lifelong friend.

“He was  great man in my book,” Little said.

Booth was a fourth generation Floridian, born in Gainesville,- his roots steeped deep into Florida soil, so deep that his great-grandfather, Odet Phillipe Booth, is credited  with introducing the first grapefruit into the state.

At 19 he was drafted and and spent three years in the military, from 1943 to 1946.

He and his wife Marie met in a Gainesville hospital, where she was serving as a receptionist.

He was outdoor enthusiast - water skiiing, fishing, hunting and had a prize bass that hung on the walk in his office. 

He was a graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in business administration and then went on to attend Stetson Law School, obtaining his degree in 1951.

He practiced law in Palatka and was the county attorney in Putnam County and then in Leesburg with Cherry and Booth.

In 1967  he became one of two county judges in Lake County. In 1968, he became judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit for the next 31 years.

He is survived by his wife Marie, their two daughters -Rebecca Hill and Suzanne Booth, their spouses and children.



Contact editor Brenda Locklear at 352-793-2161 or blocklear@sctnews.com