The man who had come face to face with many a criminal walked the halls of Brooksville Elementary bound for kindergarten class.
Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. admitted he had a few jitters.
The father and grandfather had read plenty of bedtime stories. But reading to a roomful of 4- and 5-year-olds? He couldn't recall the last time he'd done that.
"It's like dealing with lawyers and their clients," said Merritt, the chief judge for Hernando's Fifth Circuit. "You want them to not lie, cheat or steal, share and play nice."
Merritt wasn't the only non-educator headed for center stage Thursday.
He and about 45 other volunteers took part in the fourth annual Read for the Record, a worldwide effort to promote childhood literacy by setting a record for the most people reading the same book on the same day.
The event is organized by Jumpstart, a nonprofit group that places volunteers in schools, with support from the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Pearson plc, a media and education company.
Thursday's effort began stateside on the Today show as Matt Lauer and Merdith Viera read this year's book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Later that morning, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist sat for a reading in an Orlando elementary school.
Estimates put Florida's participation at more than 100,000 students. In Hernando, volunteers read to about 1,775 children at six elementary schools, said Pattie Stepbach, a regional supervisor for Pearson and a Brooksville resident who spearheaded the effort.
County Commissioner Rose Rocco, Brooksville city manager Jennene Norman-Vacha, Hernando sheriff's Major Mike Maurer, and Hernando Times editor Mike Konrad were among the readers across the county.
A dozen volunteers showed up at Brooksville Elementary including Stanley Giannet, the provost of Pasco-Hernando Community College's north campus in Brooksville, a trio of PHCC students, and Mike Walker, the city of Brooksville's parks and recreation director.
Darlene Blount, the school's Title I lab manager, passed out copies of Caterpillar. The book, with its simple, colorful art and round holes where the caterpillar munched his way through, is familiar to many children and children who have grown up and are parents now. The book turned 40 years old this year.
"So many kids come to school unprepared," Blount told the volunteers during a pre-reading pep talk. "Nobody has read to them and introduced them to the wonderful world of books."
She offered a tip: "Be as animated as you want."
Dressed in a black pinstripe suit and red paisley tie, it was tough to imagine how animated Merritt could get.
Ten minutes later, he stood in front of Laurie Seltz's kindergarten class. When he got to the part where the caterpillar pops out of an egg, he looked up.
"Can you make that popping sound?" Merritt asked. The judge stretched his mouth into an "O" and flicked his cheek a few times.
A nice little ad lib to the casual observer. But the volunteers were given guides that offered suggestions on how to make each page a learning experience, right down to the popping, and the judge had clearly done his homework.
He asked the kids if they were ever tiny, like the young caterpillar.
He encouraged them to count the number of oranges the caterpillar ate on Friday (five, for the record).
He asked them if they'd ever had a stomachache like the caterpillar did after eating too much junk food on Saturday
When the caterpillar ate a leaf on Sunday and felt better, he asked if they'd ever seen a dog eat grass, because that's what animals often do to calm an upset stomach.
The kids, of course, weren't working from a guide, but Merritt didn't flinch when one girl replied, "When my dog goes out, he eats poo."
Stepbach, who has known Merritt for years, laughed when she heard that story.
"I'm glad he was the one who got that comment," she said. "It couldn't have happened to a better soul."
After the caterpillar transformed to butterfly, Merritt pulled out his gavel from a black briefcase and rapped a bookshelf a few times. He passed out gavel-shaped pencils and Starburst candy. The room filled with the sound of tiny gavels tapping carpet.
After signing Read for the Record certificates for each child, he warned Seltz not to hold his signature up as an example of good penmanship. That was one of two areas of school that gave him trouble as a student, he admitted.
And the other?
"I would get my work done and have a hard time sitting still."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.