Roanoke Rapids, N.C. — Wearing a long, black robe, Chief District Judge Brenda Branch is known for keeping order in her Halifax County courtroom.
But old co-workers know that not so long ago, she was just as comfortable wearing a pair of jeans and a hard hat.
Branch began working after high school, taking orders at McDonald's. In the 1970s, she started as a maintenance worker at a Roanoke Rapids paper mill.
"People would say, 'Why are you here?' or 'This is not a place for women; you're not going to be able to do this work,''' Branch recalled. "I would say to them, 'I can do whatever you can do.'"
And she did, spending 20 years working at the mill. "I wound up rebuilding pumps, air cylinders, hydraulic cylinders," she said.
During those years, Branch also focused on her education. With two young children at home, she went to college part-time, two nights a week. At age 35, she graduated and then signed up for more – law school at North Carolina Central University.
"I would leave work, go home and take a quick shower, get on the road and drive to Durham three nights a week," Branch said.
Branch received her law degree in the spring of 2001 and was working in the Halifax County district attorney's office by fall.
Her career took its latest turn, she recalled, when the late Sen. Robert Holliman called her and said, "'I watched you, and I've talked to several people about your community service work. You've done a lot. You'd be great as our next judge.'"
Eight months later, she was. A year later, she became the first female, African-American chief district judge in Halifax County.
"It's been fast," Branch said.
And six months after achieving that milestone, Branch said she has her eye on accomplishing more with the juvenile justice system.
"We're getting more and more and more young people" entering it, she said. "It's not slowing down. It's not stopping."
Meanwhile, her old co-workers at the paper mill said they expect just about anything from the mechanic become judge.
"We call her right frequently, just to talk with her," paper-mill worker John Nixon said. "We trained her. We're proud of her."