After the initial shock wore off, after they had accepted the unfairness of it all, Page Vernon and her husband of 31 years, Jim, decided to do what they had always done.
That was Vernon’s response to a terminal diagnosis of lung cancer. As if it weren’t enough she had already survived breast cancer – twice – Page Vernon, a district court judge for Orange and Chatham counties, was diagnosed with Stage IV, non-small-cell lung cancer in 2011. She was 59, a nonsmoker, had two grown sons and as far as her friends and family are concerned, was about as full of life as anyone could be.
When they realized she was not going to be sick all the time – the chemotherapy took its toll during the third week of each month – they decided to make the most of what she had left. A series of trips were planned to visit family and friends all over the nation. Music festivals were enjoyed, she lovingly tended to her bees, and quiet moments by the hearth with her husband and children became a top priority.
Vernon succumbed to the illness last month at the age of 60, but not after putting up quite a fight.
But that what was Vernon did. She fought.
Family and friends say Vernon fought throughout her life for those less fortunate. She most often fought for children, both in her personal life as a volunteer and professionally from both sides of the bench.
Vernon, the only girl of six children, had to learn to fight early.
“She had to be tough because of all of us,” joked Otis Humphrey, a younger brother. She was raised in western New York, where she did sports alongside her brothers.
After college, she spent a few years working as a paralegal in Boston, where her interest in the law was born. She came from a family of conservative bankers and would soon find herself the lone, law-minded liberal at family gatherings.
“We had some interesting discussions, but we always respected one another,” said another brother, Peter Humphrey. She was jokingly called “The Interrogator” for her keen interest in getting to know others.
“She wanted to know about you, your life, your family,” Peter Humphrey said. “No matter who you were or what background you came from, she was sincerely interested in you.”
“She had more friends than anybody you and I know,” Jim Vernon said.
Vernon met her husband through a chance meeting with mutual friends while she was living in Boston.
“We were together from almost the moment we met,” he said. After she finished law school in California, the couple decided to return to Jim’s hometown of Chapel Hill to start their married life together.
A job offer
The summer before their wedding, Vernon decided to test her legal prowess by handling a speeding ticket incurred by her fiancé. Family lore has it she went into the district attorney’s office in Chapel Hill in the hopes of a prayer for judgment plea on the ticket. She more or less left with a job offer.
Wade Barber was the district attorney for Orange and Chatham counties at the time and remembers his assistant telling him he needed to meet Vernon. She had just passed the bar but did not yet have a job, and he was in need of a new assistant DA.
“Page came in, and she stood comfortably erect and had a warm smile and a glisten in her eye,” Barber remembers. “She was confident in herself, and she was confident in her abilities.”
Vernon was offered the job but had to postpone her honeymoon a full year in order to accept it. She would work as an assistant DA from 1981 until her second son, Amos, was born in 1985.
During her tenure she would battle cancer for the first time, undergoing radiation therapy and a lymphadenectomy for breast cancer at the age of 31.
“1983 was a terrible year,” Jim Vernon said. But the next year she gave birth to their first son, Ben, and the couple continued building their life together in Chatham County, perhaps with an added sense of gratitude.
Her boys recall their childhood as idyllic.
“Just so much time tromping through the woods,” Amos Vernon said, doing what his mother called the Big Tree Tour, simply looking at big trees.
“She was always such a huge advocate for the Golden Rule,” Ben Vernon said. “When we were growing up, it almost felt like a mantra.”
Focus on family law
Soon after Vernon’s youngest started school, she headed over to Barber’s private practice in Pittsboro. He had left the DA’s office years earlier, and she was looking to work as an attorney again, preferably about 30 hours a week. He said of course.
It was at Barber, Bradshaw and Vernon that she was able to focus more on juvenile court and family law, the areas nearest to her heart.
Over the years she also found time to volunteer, serving as a guardian ad litem, working on nonprofit boards and raising money to fund youth education. She and Jim both volunteered with Chatham County Together!, where they mentored at-risk children.
Cancer struck again in 2002, and she resigned from private practice. She was soon cancer-free after undergoing a simple mastectomy, and for a few years taught law classes at both UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University.
Throughout much of her career, colleagues had encouraged her to seek a judgeship, and in 2008 she threw in her hat.
Vernon won handily, her campaign focusing on the need for Orange and Chatham counties to increase support for families in crisis and to address increasing teenage pregnancy and school dropout rates.
She would spend a little over two years on the bench cancer-free, and in that time she focused largely on youth issues.
A role model
Vernon stayed on the bench the first few months of chemotherapy but resigned when she felt it was impeding her ability to focus.
From that point on, the Vernons focused on seeing as many loved ones, and visiting as many beloved locations, as they could before she would no longer be able to travel.
When she died last month, her son Amos received a note from an old girlfriend. She had only met his mother twice, for a few days each time, but Vernon had become one of her three role models (the other two being Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jane Goodall). This was no surprise to Amos.
“Something about my mom just clicked with people. Across the board people were drawn to her like no one else I’ve ever known,” he said. “She was magnetic.”