MY TURN: Late Detroit judge displayed a knack for scaling heights


She was a noted Detroit judge, a mountain climber, a marathoner, a downhill skier, and a pet rescuer, yet Mary Waterstone was something and someone far more than all that.

She was a good person, a label that few can rightfully claim in this age of divisiveness and outright political hate.

It was 14 years ago last month when I first met the then recently retired Wayne County Circuit Court judge, who at the time coincidentally had 14 Detroit marathon finishes to her credit. We met for an interview at her magnificent home in Detroit's Indian Village, which was just a short jaunt from one of her favorite running routes around Belle Isle.

Waterstone, who earned her juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School, began her daily routine of "pounding the pavement" while living in New York in 1976 when she worked as a corporate attorney for telecommunications giant AT&T.

"My original motivation in running was to lose weight and to maintain a healthy weight, but then it became much more than that," she told me at the time. "I couldn't run more than two blocks when I first started, but gradually I began to increase my distance and I became hooked."

Four years later, after turning the age clock to 40, Waterstone toed the starting line for her first marathon, a 26.2-mile test of wills in her adopted city of Detroit.

"I did pretty well for my first time, finishing in 3:50 with somewhat of a smile on my face," she recalled. "Until you've run a marathon, you really can't appreciate how difficult a challenge it is. The last five or six miles can be brutal, even if you have been faithful in your training."

Her successful marathon debut began a string of 10 straight finishes over the next decade, highlighted by a personal best of 3:41 in 1982.

Of particular note, Waterstone finished four of the races with her husband, Alan, a former Michigan Bell Co. attorney who died of pancreatic cancer in 1996. The couple met while working at Michigan Bell in Detroit, although their careers with the company overlapped for less than a year.

"Alan, who was 11 years older than I, then went into private practice, specializing in labor relations and anti-trust law," Waterstone said. "He also was an adjunct professor at Wayne State for more than 30 years.

Their shared love of running served as a convenient means of managing the legal stress in their lives, and also was a great exercise outlet.

As was mountain climbing, a far-flung sport that took Waterstone to the top of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, a 19,340-foot peak that she reached in 2006 Among her partners were a doctor and a pastor, a pair of climbing partners who figured to keep her in good stead if difficulties arose.

"I thought it was good to have my bases covered," she quipped.

The 10-member climbing contingent, that included four from Detroit, scaled Kilimanjaro in seven days, descending the mountain in just two days.

Waterstone also made the trek to the base camp at Mount Everest, a 17,500-foot climb en route to the world's highest peak at 29,035 feet. For good measure, she also reached the summit of Ecuador's Mount Cayambe, an 18,990-foot peak in the Andes of South America.

From her humble beginnings in St. Joseph, Mich. on the west side of the state, Waterstone had no inkling that she would be destined to climb such career and recreational heights. She graduated from St. Joseph High and earned a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in 1961, majoring in Spanish.

She went to work as a research librarian for Michigan's Constitutional Convention in Lansing where Charles Joiner, an associate dean at U-M Law School, encouraged her to attend law school, which she did with the help of a scholarship.

After graduating from U-M in 1965, she took a job as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Fred Kaess, an assignment that served as a stepping stone to a post as an associate professor at Wayne State Law School in 1968. Seven years later, she was hired as an attorney for AT&T, joining Michigan Bell as general counsel in 1977.

In 1991, she was appointed to a judgeship on the 36th District Court bench in Detroit, a seat she held for six years. Her service there would lead to an appointment to the Wayne County Circuit Court in 1997, where she would preside over a number of high-profile cases before retiring in 2006.

It also would be a time frame when she served as president of the Friends of Belle Isle and was an active member of Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, where her willingness to help the less fortunate extended even to those of the four-legged variety by adopting rescue dogs and cats.

"I've always felt a duty to help those who've experienced hardships in life," she said, some seven years before she died of cancer on April 21, 2014 at the age of 74. "I've always liked the Churchill saying, 'We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.' That will always resonate with me."