MOUNT VERNON — During 22 years on the bench in Knox County’s Juvenile Court, Judge James M. Ronk has encountered thousands of young people charged with traffic offenses. Seven teenagers in particular stand out in his memory and propel his commitment to the job.
He remembers those seven children not because they were scholastic standouts or star athletes or because they grew up to be great parents and successful in their careers. He remembers them because they were in the wrong situation at the wrong time and lost their lives when one young driver made one bad decision.
Ronk’s reality every Tuesday afternoon when he hears traffic cases involving 15- to 17-year-olds is one of life and death. And he strives to assure that the teens won’t pass through his court without coming face-to-face with that reality.
At the outset of each case, Ronk says “there are a couple of things I tell everyone I see in this court.” He calls them his standard speeches, but they are anything but standard. Each “speech” is individualized and every defendant learns that the judge isn’t speaking for the benefit of a transcript, but for their benefit.
Teenagers are sometimes disinclined to accept advice from adults, and they don’t always listen to what they hear. So in Ronk’s courtroom, they are not only asked and encouraged, but urged and cajoled to truly tune in. His style is personable and casual, his delivery well practiced, and he invests however much time he thinks necessary to make his points.
“Driving may well be the only responsibility you undertake in this lifetime that is a matter of life and death,” he tells a boy who lost control of his car in a turn and crashed into a utility pole.
“Driving deserves your very best effort, not some of the time but all of the time,” he tells a girl who escaped uninjured after sliding on ice and flipping her car into a ditch. “You are the one responsible for that 3,000-pound machine, and but for the grace of God we might be having a very different conversation.”