Judge Feature Story
Nov. 26, 2012
People aren’t always remembered for what they do, but rather how they do it.
Lois Belden can look back and remember how she went back to school because she could, graduated with her daughter and became a judge after four years. But to her the biggest thing she’s done is making people’s lives better however and whenever she could.
The change in society allowed her to do this.
In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed forbidding discrimination based on ethnic and religious minorities as well as women. Belden said many people focus on what it did for minorities forgetting its role with women.
“That Civil Rights Act changed everything for women,” Belden said. “With that all the barriers fell down for women.”
Before Belden was just a citizen, but she was a citizen who got involved and loved politics. She was active in the League of Women Voters among other political organizations.
“We had talked about Bert taking a job in New York State and I told him that was ok but my whole life was here,” she said. “Being the wonderful person he was, he thought for a couple of days and said ‘you know, you really should go to law school’.”
She took the advice and finished her undergraduate work at Oklahoma State University. She graduated in 1975 with her daughter, now veterinarian Julie Davis.
“Graduating with my mom is one of the biggest highlights of my life,” Davis said. “There are few women or people in general who work as hard as she does. It was a true sign that we were on the way towards equality in America.”
Belden then applied and was accepted into the University of Oklahoma Law School in Norman, Okla.
“Naturally a law school would be the ones to accept the Civil Rights Act first,” Belden said. “I often thought it made it easier for them in many ways because now they don’t have to worry about families that figure they can just get in based on their name.”
She would go to class five days a week staying in a small apartment meant more for a less picky 20-something rather than a well to do mother of three. Some weekends she would go home and make a pot roast for her husband and son and one weekend a month they would go visit her.
“I loved law school, but my family was here and Bert was still teaching,” Belden said. “So after I graduated I came back to open a little office, a basic thing like you always would try to do.”
One year after doing a random assortment of work for the District Attorney, Belden was presented with a new challenge.
“Oklahoma had just passed the Child Support Enforcement statutes and there was a tremendous back load of problems with that,” she said. “It included setting up offices for this and so forth. So the District Attorney stopped by my office and asked me if I would be interested in that. I thought ‘if he thinks I can do it then why not?’”
Within the week the lady who had just graduated law school had her own office with two secretaries and a processor. Instantly there were boxes filled to the brim with children cases needing to be dealt with.
Four years later, a judge retired and another judge told Belden that she should consider applying.
“I thought ‘if he thinks I can do it, then why not try?’” Belden said. “So I applied and a few weeks later I am being sworn in as a judge”
Her son, Mark Belden, remembers this process as an exciting time in his mother’s life. He said she had attributes that many people could tell would make a good judge.
“At the time both parties actually approached her about running,” he said. “She did so well in the private practice with the child support that you knew the skills would translate over.”
Lois Belden had gone from a middle-aged person in law school to a judge in four years. She said the big jump couldn’t be taken lightly.
“It is terrifying,” Belden said. “It is terrifying for every judge because the amount of responsibility is so great. There is no little case to the people who are there, whether it is small claims or anything else.”
To her, criminal court was the hardest. She said the part that makes it so shocking is the average person isn’t exposed to that kind of activates on a day-to- day basis.
Belden was thrown right into the fire when it comes to high-pressure cases as she recollected a triple-homicide in just her first month on the job.
“I had a murder case with three defendants, in just my third week there,” she said. “In Oklahoma the preliminary isn’t like in front of a Grand Jury or anything, it’s all based on the judge. You have to show that there is probable evidence on all counts. Three young people were being charged and I had to make a decision.”
Shelley Dickerson was the court reporter for Belden 12 of the 15 years she was judge and saw the difference between Lois Belden, the friend and Lois Belden, the judge.
“She was a complete different person in the courtroom,” Dickerson said. “She was no tolerance at all for crime or people that used the system.”
Dickerson said she has never seen a judge who gave as much consideration to every case as Judge Belden did. But by the same token, she said there aren’t many judges who had such a low tolerance for excuses.
“She would just go call people out on things in court,” Dickerson said. “If someone wanted a court appointed attorney because they couldn’t afford one, but she saw them wearing a nice watch or cloths she would ask them how they could afford all that but not a lawyer.”
Dickerson also said what a great person Belden was and still is.
“She is a huge supporter of women and everything they are trying to do in society,” Dickerson said. “But you can still sit down and talk to her about anything and she will give you a straight well thought out answer. That’s becoming rare today.”
This loyalty to people is a reason Belden and Dickerson are still close friends. The loyalty was also a big reason Belden excelled as a judge.
“I told myself that everyone who comes to me would be better off because I’m helping them then they would be otherwise, no matter how much time it took,” Belden said.
The selfless work and loyalty has been a key throught her whole life, beginning with her Midwestern roots.
Belden was born in Chicago in 1925. She grew up in a time where the woman’s roll was beginning to transform from housework to industrial work as World War II took a large section of the labor market away.
“After I had graduated from high school I had started working at the Chicago branch of AALAS (American Association for Laboratory Animal Science) Laboratories,” Belden said. “Most of the first year I was in the typing department and then I was promoted to secretary to the office manager. It was quite the jump for an 18 year old.”
This was the first of many big jumps for Belden throughout her life. Working in the factory gave her money to further her education.
“I could catch a speedboat there for a quarter and take it the Chicago campus of Northwestern and attended night school,” she said.
Belden remembers dances on the Navy Pier during college. It was there she met her husband, a person who made the rest of her life possible.
She closes her eyes as she recollects this and smiles an ageless smile. Despite being 87 years old she said still laughs with the memories that feel like only yesterday.
Her future husband, Bert, was sent to the Philippians during the war; they were married a few weeks after he returned.
“He had a couple things he had to do in a hurry,” she said. “He enrolled at Plattsburgh right when he got back, before we got married even so he wouldn’t miss that full semester.”
And with that the new Mrs. Belden’s life took a turn of touring the country with her new husband. He began to teach and go to school furthering his education along the way. She said he would work 12 hours and go to school for 12 hours, leaving them both busy.
“So of course I got to do all of his papers too, being a secretary,” Belden said. “I often thought he’d be asleep at night and I would be up doing the papers.”
After a move to Calif., the Belden family had some new members. Mark was born, followed by Julia and then their third, Tim, in Okla. Despite all the classes she took, Belden stayed at home and never thought twice about it.
“I had 20 wonderful years just raising kids,” she said. “And it really was wonderful.”
Belden said her success has come from taking it one step at a time and learning lessons along the way.
“So in my life I went to college as a young person with middle aged people and then went to college as a middle-aged person with the young people,” Belden said. “That probably helped me a lot having all that experience that you bring with it just by living.”
Pastor Sally Houck has been Belden’s pastor for many years now and said the difference she makes is deeper then most people would know.
“She is such a supportive women who is more liberated and free spirited then most people,” she said. “In all of this I think people forget that she is fairly old.”
Belden’s son Mark would agree as he said his mother is an unsung heroin of Stillwater.
“She probably wouldn’t show up if you were doing a popularity pole in Stillwater,” he said. “But one day she will be a real loss for the city. Someone they cant really replace.”
After 15 of service Judge Belden hung up the robe. It was 1999 and the husband that supported her through her life’s journey was sick.
“He wasn’t too well and I didn’t want to leave him sitting at home by himself,” she said. “So we had a good run. He only lived for about four more years after that.” Belden still lives in the same house she has for the last 50 years. She sings in
the church choir every week like she as done for the last 70 years. She is still active in the politics of the community and the country,
“I was really a product of my generation,” she said. “And I certainly never expected to have that sort of career.”