Whenever Jan. 25th came around, Goldie Kerr made sure everyone in the Stanislaus County public defender's office knew it.
"You'd better not forget her birthday," said Jacki White, a clerk in the office since 2003 and spoke to her last on her birthday. "Birthdays were very important."
"Just hers," joked Migue Chacon, who joined the office as clerk seven years ago.
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"We'd gather everybody up and go to lunch," said Patty Funk, an eight-year veteran clerk. "Then she'd pick out who was going to pay for hers."
They remember Kerr fondly because she brought so many bright moments to the office. What started out as a six-week temporary job in November 1986 turned into a 19-year career as a legal clerk that didn't end until injuries she suffered during an automobile accident forced her to retire in November 2005.
Kerr, 57, died last month while trying to rescue her mother, 83-year-old Nobie Partain, as flames engulfed their mobile home near Jamestown. Partain also died. Kerr already had rousted grandson Cody Wright, getting him out of the home before going back in to find her mother. Both were overcome by the thick, acrid smoke and never made it out.
According to a published report, a fire crew dispatched to the scene didn't know anyone was inside, and responded to a choking incident instead.
In the aftermath, Wright's schoolmates at Sonora's Cassina High School raised over $12,500 in cash and gift cards for him.
Likewise, staff members at the public defender's office have opened a memorial fund for him at Valley First Credit Union in Modesto. It's the least they could do for Kerr, who made their jobs easier through her knowledge of the office, along with her wit and personality.
Have a coughing attack, and she'd offer a tongue-in-cheek remedy.
"She'd threaten to duct-tape your mouth shut," White said.
She had nicknames for co-workers, calling bearded Senior Public Defender Greg Spiering "Hairy." She called Lew Wentz, a former public defender now in private practice, "her husband."
"When I first got here, I thought that (Wentz) was really her ex," Chacon said. "She'd say, 'Where's my child support?' "
"It was our joke," Wentz said. "I wasn't really married to her, but I loved her (as a friend). I thought she was great."
Bernie Fairfield, a public defender for two decades, remembers how Wentz loved to entertain co-workers.
"She'd go clean his house for the party," Fairfield said.
Who else could set him up for public embarrassment and get away with it?
One day, he arrived in a courtroom for a trial, opposed by then-Deputy District Attorney Holly Barrett. Kerr added a bit of evidence.
"I went to open the file to start my case and there was the banana," Wentz said. A very old banana, as bananas go. The peel was black. "She got what she wanted -- to humiliate me in court. I thought it was pretty funny."
Kerr could also be blunt, they said.
"But you didn't take it (personally)," Funk said.
"It was never offensive," Deputy Public Defender Area Parke said.
To the contrary, Kerr treated everybody -- including defendants who visited the office -- the same.
"She didn't judge our clients," Parke said. "Sometimes, she'd take 'em by the hand and say you need to do this or that."
She knew when glib worked and when it didn't.
"We take wins and losses pretty seriously around here," Spiering said. "She understood that."
And she took care of the office staff. Lose or misplace a file?
"She'd laugh and go find it," Parke said.
"She'd say, 'If you were going to misspell this, how would you misspell it?' " White said.
Kerr ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches. She made three trips a day to the Piccadilly Deli and Sandwich Shop to replenish her mug with tea. She collected anything Hulk Hogan or "The Rock," displaying some of it at her work station.
Raised in Tuolumne City, she returned to Tuolumne County several years ago because she "felt the commute was worth the move to Jamestown," Parke wrote in a letter to co-workers. "She traded the sound of traffic for the sounds of nature, the birds chirping, frogs croaking, and silence. The clear blue sunny skies lifted her soul after being in Modesto, overcast and cold all day. At night, she saw the stars instead of street lights."
Kerr suffered a serious shoulder injury in May 2005, when her car was rear-ended as she waited for a person in a wheelchair to cross the street. She retired six months later, after healing enough to take care of her mother in Jamestown, but just two months shy of her 55th birthday. Had she stayed those two extra months, Fairfield said, it would have increased her retirement benefits significantly. Mom came first.
And though she enjoyed celebrating her birthdays, she declined to have a big retirement party. Instead, she sent a letter to her co-workers, telling them, "Now all I need is a big truck to pack all my boxes of important stuff I had at my cube."
She also told them her 19 years in the public defender's office "were the happiest times of my life."
Theirs, too. She saw to that.
To contribute to the fund at any Valley First Credit Union branch, make the check out to "In Memorial To Goldie Kerr."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.