Many people have asked me to write a story on Judge Mac as he was affectionately known and loved. He was a “self-trained man.” His stories of sports, milk routes, gas stations, superettes, justice of the peace and as mayor, were fun stories to hear. Most of his stories centered around the gas station and the superette where Tim Turman’s Strombelli’s is today at 408 University Drive.
Edsel Stuart said, “One of the individuals who worked driving milk trucks was Mr. R. L. McDavid who later was a Justice of the Peace and then became Mayor of Starkville. Mr. McDavid was on his milk route when he spotted someone in Mrs. Copeland’s yard and called the police. That someone turned out to be none other than Johnny Cash.”
When Robert Lee McDavid was playing football at Macon High School in the 1930s, he liked getting off the bench and into the game. But when he stepped down from the bench as justice court judge, it was entirely a different feeling.
“I’m going to miss it, I know that. But it was time for me to retire,” said McDavid, who was 65 and had served in the county court system for 28 years.
“Judge Mac” first ran for justice of the peace in Oktibbeha County in 1959. He had four opponents and came within 35 votes of having a majority in the first primary. He was re-elected six times and ran unopposed only once.
During his seven terms in office, McDavid tried some 50,000 cases with the vast majority of them being traffic offenses. He has married about 1,000 couples in a variety of settings – on a motorcycle, in the grease room of his service station, and in a van. “There’s one fellow I’ve performed the wedding service for four times,” he said with a chuckle. Often couples would meet the judge at his home and several asked to be married on the front porch or the patio.
Many changes have been made in the county court system over the years. One of the most visible is the use of judges’ robes that began several years ago. “It really adds a lot to the dignity of the proceedings,” said McDavid, who recalled being summoned to court one day from the swimming pool where he had taken his grandchildren. “The defendants didn’t have time for me to go home and change, so I just went in my swimming trunks,” he said with a smile.
Jury trials were more common in his early career. “If a man wanted a jury trial, we’d have to round up six people, sometimes just pulling them off the street,” he said. Today, jury members are drawn from a pool just as for other courts. “But we have very few jury trials now,” he added.
When McDavid took office, he had had no training for the job. He learned by talking with other judges and attorneys. “The lawyers around town have always been great to me,” he commented.
As time passed, more training requirements for justice court judges were initiated. In 1983, the name was changed from justice of peace and the number of judges became tied to the population in the county; and judges were required to take 32 hours of schooling their first year in office and 18 hours every year afterwards. Judges were also put on a salary instead of being paid from fees and fines collected. And now the court cases are assigned to the three justices and there three clerks to handle the paper work and collect fees and fines.
“It’s a whole let better than it was. People don’t realize just how good a system we have,” McDavid said.
Born and raised near Macon, McDavid played football, basketball and baseball at Macon High School. His love of sports continued for many years. He umpired Little League baseball and was statistician for Starkville High School games, reporting the results on the halftime radio show. “I never missed a game for 20 years,” he said.
After graduating from high school in 1940, McDavid joined the U. S. Army serving 27 months in the quartermaster corps in England and France during World War II. When he returned home in 1945, he married his high school sweetheart, Annie Mae, who has been his wife for 42 years.
Looking for a better job than his work at a local grocery store, he and his family moved to Starkville in 1946. He worked for Perry Creamery until the company closed the Starkville plant in 1959. That was the year he decided to run for justice of the peace. “I didn’t have the $25 to qualify, so a friend loaned it to me,” he said. I had been exposed to county politics all my life, though. My grandfather was on the Board of Supervisors in Noxubee County for years and my uncle was circuit clerk there for a long time.
McDavid was involved in a variety of business ventures including running milk routes, owning and operating service stations and operating superettes. “I’ve turned all that over to the boys.
The McDavids have five children. “Starkville is a great place and I would not live anywhere else in the world,” he said. They are members of First Presbyterian Church and McDavid is president of the Starkville Shrine Club and a member of the Masons, Eastern Star, Rebekahs, Odd Fellows and Scottish Rite Masons. He was on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee/Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Association and former board member of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ and Peace Officers Association. His last official act as justice court was swearing in county officials. “I won’t miss being “on call” day and night, but I will miss the people and being involved with the people.
Judge Mac died in 2005. He served as mayor of Starkville from 1989-1993 and as a Justice Court judge from 1959-1988.