When he was in his courtroom, Pinellas County Judge Walt Fullerton didn’t laugh or joke. He rarely smiled. He didn’t do funny voices.
Except, maybe, once. And the courtroom was a Largo High School classroom.
“The trial itself progressed like a tennis match with volleys back and forth and over-the-net slams from each side,” the St. Petersburg Times reported on Jan. 16, 2001, at a mock trial in a business law class. “Throughout the trial, Fullerton light-heartedly went with the flow, punctuating court proceedings with a bit of humor.”
It was a rare meeting of two of Fullerton’s sides: judge and joker.
“In his courtroom in particular, he had, when he wanted to, pretty much of a no-nonsense demeanor,” said Fullerton’s brother, Ken Fullerton. “I don’t think anybody would have accused him of being warm and cuddly.”
Through his work, the public saw someone committed and serious.
“But the other side was a guy who loved his family, loved living, loved the outdoors and could be a lot of fun to be around.”
Fullerton died Aug. 28 due to multiple health issues, including cancer and a prolonged illness due to COVID-19. He was 72.
‘We urge you to participate’
“Welcome fellow Green Devils!” Fullerton wrote to his classmates as the 1967-1968 St. Petersburg High School student council president. “For the next nine months, you will be a part of one of the finest schools in the state. We urge you to participate in its many activities and traditions.”
Fullerton did just that.
He also served as president of the German club, was named Mr. St. Pete High School and, through the student council, took part in a statewide group for youth leaders that met quarterly with the governor in Tallahassee.
After graduating from Williams College, Fullerton served as a commissioned officer in the Navy, where he fought in the Vietnam War. In 1978, he graduated from Emory Law School and started his career as a lawyer.
In the early ’80s, he met his future wife, Cathy, who soon joined Fullerton on all the adventures he took while not working, from sailing to hiking to visiting national parks. In 1988, he was appointed a county judge by Gov. Bob Martinez.
Martinez didn’t know the judge personally when he made the appointment, he said, but among the things he was impressed with were Fullerton’s education, philosophy, community involvement and strong family ties.
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In 1996, Fullerton helped create Pinellas County’s first domestic violence court, one of just three in the state. In 2015, after 27 years on the bench, he retired.
His adventuring, however, continued.
Part of the world
The Fullertons were married for 11 years before they started their family through adoption.
The judge was a dad’s dad, said his oldest, Elizabeth Fullerton. He told embarrassing dad jokes, photographed everything and included his three daughters in all his adventures.
For Elizabeth Fullerton, that included sitting under her dad’s bench playing quietly with Barbies sometimes while court was in session or going to the circus with her dad.
The Fullertons took Elizabeth, Lian and Colbie hiking at national parks around the country, around Tampa Bay on his boat, to his work conferences, to the zoo and to Disney.
“He included us in everything,” Elizabeth Fullerton said.
In 2015, Fullerton was diagnosed with lymphoma and was in and out of remission for years. But he kept moving, kept joking and kept making the people he loved laugh. He’d tell outrageous stories as a visiting alien from planet Orkdorf and hoarded dark chocolate to share with his girls when their mom wasn’t looking.
The public knew a stern judge. His family, who called him WAF (based on his initials, Walter Atherton Fullerton) for short, knew a man who savored being alive and almost always posed with his signature pageant wave.
Through his work, Fullerton saw some of the worst things people face. In the rest of his life, he tried to bring out the best, his daughter said.
“He just always wanted to be part of the world.”
Poynter researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
Correction: Walt Fullerton retired from his career as a judge in 2015.
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