Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: NC judge passes on statue from a Wizardly friend

A Byzantine mosaic of Emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527 to 565 and codified Roman law.
A Byzantine mosaic of Emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527 to 565 and codified Roman law. Rodger Mallison/Star-Telegram

After 12 years on the bench, Judge Sanford Steelman Jr. will retire from the N.C. Court of Appeals, an occasion that merits some grand gesture, a parting salute, an exit full of sweep and flourish.

Recognizing this, the veteran judge will donate his bronze cast of the Emperor Justinian, a token granted to him by a former client nicknamed the chief wizard of Oz — an inventor who created the childproof cap and kept Coca-Cola bottles from exploding in Mexico.

Soon, the old Byzantine known as Justinian the Great will dignify the hallways of the state’s second-highest court, fitting because His Highness more or less organized the tangled mess of Roman law. But it’s a more interesting tribute because of the man who gave it to Steelman:

Edward Towns, bottlecap innovator.

“Ed was a character,” Steelman said. “I think he gave it to me because he thought I’d appreciate Justinian. I’ve been trying to get something done with it.”

The relationship between judge and inventor began in Monroe, N.C., where Steelman worked in private practice and Towns shaped his inventions at Oz Worldwide, his castle-shaped building with a triangular roof and turrets.

“His business card said ‘chief wizard,’” Steelman recalled. “You walked up a sidewalk that was yellow brick.”

A New York native, Towns had migrated South after World War II, in which he flew Spitfires with the Royal Canadian Air Force because his own country had not yet joined the fighting. Later, he flew C-47s in the South Pacific with the U.S. Army Air Corps.

His experiments with childproof caps came after his 3-year-old son fished a bottle of prescription pills out of his wife’s pocketbook, surviving though he downed the whole thing. Throughout his career, Towns designed a leak-proof frozen juice container, a nail polish bottle with a pre-polished brush inside and a cap for Coke bottles that would self-adjust for pressure at higher altitudes — a chronic problem on the road to Mexico City.

“Every time we cussed at a childproof cap on a medicine bottle, we were touched by Ed Towns,” said Steelman, delivering his friend’s eulogy in 1999. “But ... we understood why it had to be that way.”

As for the bronze cast, Towns got it from his father, a New York attorney. Cast in the 1930s, it served as a prototype for a figure at the top left of the bronze doors of the U.S. Supreme Court. After years in Steelman’s home, and more spent informally at the Court of Appeals, it needed sprucing. Enter Raleigh sculptor and metalsmith Christian Karkow, who helped create the fallen-police memorials in both Raleigh and Clayton.

“I’ve gotten into bronze,” he said, humbly, from his Holden Street studio.

Most likely, Karkow said, Justinian’s shape was formed out of plaster or wax and pressed into sand, making a mold for pouring bronze. He’ll clean it, sharpening the details of the emperor in sandals and robe, readying him for mounting on Calcutta gold marble.

“Justinian was the guy who codified all Roman law,” Steelman said, admiring his old gift. “ It had gotten very confusing. He cleaned it up and put it into an organized code, which is very important. But the main thing is I think about Ed when I see it.”

And so shall we — our fizzy drinks tamed, our prescription drugs safely stowed.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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