Judge has 25 years of stories

'No plans to retire and no cards'

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Columbia Falls City Judge Tina Gordon has been presiding over Columbia Falls city court for 25 years.

Tina Gordon never thought she would be a city judge for long.

Now, after a quarter century on the bench, Gordon is comfortable and happy in her role as she reflects on her life — but she still doesn’t have business cards.

Gordon was born in the 1940s in Bremerton, Wash., to Earl and Hazel Fish, or as they were known to their friends, Shorty and Swede. The family moved to Anchorage, Alaska, shortly thereafter, following the construction work with which Shorty provided for the family.

In 1950, construction of the massive Hungry Horse Dam — the third largest in the world at the time of its completion — brought the family to Columbia Falls. Gordon had been attending school for just two weeks at the time.

“Every year for a few years it was that way,” Gordon said. “I’d start here and my dad would move somewhere else and I’d finish somewhere else, then we’d move back here. But I ended up the only one out of six girls that attended school in Columbia Falls every year.”

Gordon was a part of the Columbia Falls High School class of 1962 before she earned her degree. She then went to work in North Dakota for some time before coming back to Columbia Falls and eventually enrolling in Flathead Valley Community College, graduating in 1982 with a degree in human services with an emphasis on interpersonal communications.

“It’s a good degree to have in this valley if you don’t want to leave here,” she said. “It’s just wide open for those kinds of things.”

After graduation, Gordon got a job working for KCFW until 1988, when a new opportunity arose that offered her a chance to pursue her dream — helping protect people’s rights.

THAT OPPORTUNITY was a job opening for the city judge position in Columbia Falls.

“I wanted to get into human rights, then this position came open and it just seemed perfect,” Gordon said, “just to make sure people’s rights weren’t violated, that they got their rights.”

Gordon wasn’t the only one of her siblings to go into public service, with her sister Jolie Fish serving as mayor of Columbia Falls for four years before becoming director of Family Court Services at Flathead District Court. Another of Gordon’s five sisters, Sharee Norton, found her calling in the Navy, from which she retired as a commander, having married an admiral.

With two and a half decades of experience now under her belt, Gordon ruminated on changes over the years, both in the job and in herself.

“In the beginning, I would have liked to help people with their life, much as a social worker, but I wasn’t able to. All I can do is what the law allows me to do, so if someone needs treatment I can send them to treatment, but I can’t just willy nilly decide to send them because I think they need it,” Gordon said.

She said it was a difficult lesson for her, moving from the idealism of her college days to the realization that she had to detach from her desires and see what the law said.

“I had to realize that they needed to want to help themselves and that the law and the sentence that a judge imposes gives them the opportunity to help themselves,” Gordon said. “If they don’t take it, obviously it’s not the court’s fault or the judge’s fault. That’s something the individuals themselves have to decide.”

Of the changes in the court itself, Gordon noted the changes in state drunk-driving laws making a fourth offense automatically a felony. She remembers handling cases for people on their ninth offense prior to the change.

She also said she has noticed more drinking violations, domestic violence offenses and requests for orders of protection, which she believed was a result of the depressed economy.

“But it’s different every day, and every case is different,” Gordon said.

IN 25 YEARS of presiding over Columbia Falls, a great variety of cases have passed through Gordon’s court, but she took a moment to reminisce about one that stuck out.

“There were some individuals who aren’t here anymore that I saw a lot for crazy things,” she said. “This one fellow, he lived in a mobile court where kids play and he would go out and sit on the porch naked. So I saw him a lot.”

In one particular incident, the man was charged with possession of dangerous weapons after having stolen a six pack of beer from a grocery store.

“He told me that it was his beer and they were merely holding it for him, and when they arrested him for it they found all these butter knives taped all over his chest,” she said. “I liked the guy, he was very, very personable, I never had any problems with him. Everyone else was just terrified of him for some reason, but he didn’t frighten me at all, not at all, in fact I liked him.”

Gordon said she has been judge long enough that in some cases she has seen a mother, father, children and grandchildren come through one by one on their own cases.

“Lots of times it’s simple traffic things that could happen to you or me,” she said.

IN HER SPARE TIME, Gordon enjoys traveling throughout the country, bragging that she has been from Oregon to Vermont and from New Orleans to Niagara Falls.

“I like museums and historical things, and I’ve had the opportunity to be in a lot of cities,” she said. “I just continue that, on my vacations that’s what I like to do.”

Gordon said her favorite place in the country is Charleston, S.C.

“There’s a lot of history there,” she said, “like going to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. It’s my very favorite place.”

Gordon was joined in her travels by her husband, William “Billy” Mohan, until his death in December of last year.

Another of Gordon’s hobbies is gardening — growing both flowers and vegetables. She also volunteers in her community through a hospital ministry and a community kitchen.

Despite her love of traveling, gardening and volunteering, Gordon has no intention of leaving the bench any time soon, a position which has provided her with fulfillment of her desire to help people.

And as for that lack of business cards?

“I just never had them made,” Gordon said, laughing. “I didn’t think I would be here that long, so I never ever had them made. These judges at (ongoing education) schools always ask me for my card and I have to tell them I don’t have any. So here I am 25 years later, and I have no plans to retire and no cards.”

Reporter Jesse Davis may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at jdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

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