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St. Lawrence County Family Court Judge Barbara R. Potter retiring

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CANTON — When St. Lawrence County Family Court Judge Barbara R. Potter finished high school in 1964, she was 17 years old and already had a baby and a husband.

As a teenage mother, she felt she had only three career options: become a nurse, teacher or secretary. None of those particularly thrilled her.

But at 19, she landed a job as a legal secretary for the Brown & Clements law firm, Morristown, and had a chance to discover her real passion.

“I became enchanted with the law and decided I wanted to go to law school,” Ms. Potter said during a recent interview. “I was always asking a lot of questions and wanted to understand everything.”

Defying the odds, she earned a law degree that launched her successful 33-year career as an attorney and judge.

While advancing her career, she also was raising four daughters. Juggling motherhood, work and school was not easy, but she was fueled by the challenging work that filled her days as an attorney.

Now she is looking forward to the next stage. The 64-year-old is scheduled to retire from her 10-year term as Family Court judge on Dec. 31, ending a term that began in January 2002.

Retirement will give her more time to spend with grandchildren and participate in outdoor activities such as hiking and cross-country skiing. She also plays saxophone in the Clayton Community Band, enjoys traveling and in February completed a half-marathon race.

“There are mountains to climb and places to see,” Ms. Potter said. “My grandchildren are growing up before my eyes. I want to be able to spend extended time with them.”

Highlights of her professional life include running her own private law practice from 1979 to 2001 in Morristown, where she still resides. She also spent several years working part time as a prosecutor with the St. Lawrence County district attorney’s office under three different district attorneys.

After high school, she earned a secretarial diploma from Ogdensburg Business School and an associate degree in liberal arts from Mater Dei College, Ogdensburg.

Next, she attended St. Lawrence University, where she received a degree in psychology. She then moved her family to Syracuse, where she attended Syracuse University Law School, receiving her juris doctor degree in 1978 at age 31.

“My third daughter was literally born in the middle of final exams at law school,” Ms. Potter recalled. “I would put the girls to bed and stay up working until 2 a.m. I couldn’t do that now, but I could do it in my 20s.”

In law school, she won first place in the Edmund H. Lewis Moot Court Competition. She recalls the achievement with a framed newspaper clipping in her office at the St. Lawrence County Courthouse.

When she started her law practice in 1979, Ms. Potter said, she was only the fifth female attorney in all of St. Lawrence County. She also was the first woman to serve as president of the St. Lawrence County Bar Association.

In 1981, she joined the DA’s office prosecuting cases part time under then-District Attorney William H. Power Jr. After Charles A. Gardner took over as district attorney, she served as his chief assistant from 1984 to 1991, marking the first time a woman held that role in St. Lawrence County.

She served as chief assistant under then-District Attorney Jerome J. Richards from 1996 to 2001, and was assigned to prosecute many sex crime cases in County Court.

Next, she ran on the Democratic line to win the Family Court judge position, beating opponent Thomas B. Wheeler. Ms. Potter succeeded David S. Nelson, who retired after serving on the bench since 1983.

Mr. Richards, who now serves as St. Lawrence County judge, said Ms. Potter felt strong empathy for many of the crime victims she represented as a prosecutor.

“Inside, there was a lot of strong emotions, especially for those who had been badly victimized,” Mr. Richards said. “If she felt someone deserved to be prosecuted, she was extremely determined to see the job through and make sure the victim received the justice they were entitled to.”

As a Family Court judge, Ms. Potter’s responsibilities include cases involving child custody, abuse and neglect, parental rights and juvenile delinquents as well as other family-related issues. “You have to make some tough decisions,” she said. “You are affecting people’s lives. Everything Family Court does affects families and the lives of their children.”

A joyful part of her job has been signing adoption orders and celebrating with families during the annual National Adoption Day.

Ms. Potter said she believes her personal struggles have been an asset to her professional life.

“I think I have a high level of empathy for people and try to understand what they’re going through,” she said. “I try to be kind while being firm at the same time.”

Besides the law, Ms. Potter’s other great passion is her family. Her office is filled with photographs of her four adult daughters, Kerri, Danielle, Whitney and Lindsay. She also has two stepchildren, 13 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

After her official retirement, Ms. Potter said, she still would like to handle some judicial hearing officer work in the Fourth Judicial District and possibly some court work on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, where several of her extended family members reside. “I want to keep my mind working,” she said.

She has straightforward advice for others working on their career goals: “Follow your dream. You can do it somehow. It won’t be easy, but eventually you’ll get there. You’ve got to work hard.”

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