After years of officiating an often-crowded courtroom, The Honorable Walther B. Fidler will be presiding over a vastly different event this weekend when he takes the spotlight as one of two Grand Marshals chosen for the highly anticipated Christmas Parade in Warsaw.
On Dec. 1, Fidler and co-Marshal Joseph Gallagher, the latter who will serve in absentia due to health related medical issues, will headline Richmond County’s third annual holiday parade hosted by the Warsaw-Richmond County Main Street Program.
It is an honor that Fidler takes seriously, when he isn’t jovially joking about the reasons for his distinction.
“I figured they chose me because I was so old and everyone else has died,” Fidler, now 90-years-old, said smiling. “Or may be they had to pick someone who hasn’t been or isn’t in jail.”
With eyes twinkling and an infectious smile on his face, the cause behind Fidler’s status as a well-admired community member is immediately obvious.
Once you get a glimpse into the depth of his commitment to the community, however, the true reasons behind his distinction become apparent.
Fidler dedicated his entire life to serving his country and the Northern Neck, and he wears that honor with humble gratitude.
From his house on Front Street in Sharps, Fidler shared his story this past Sunday after church, recalling bygone days all the while looking towards the future of the county he has called home his entire life.
Born and raised in Sharps, Fidler’s mother kept house while his father helmed Rice Oyster Co, which he and his brother eventually took over until the oyster collapse of 1988 forced them to shutter the business’s doors.
“I grew up on the water and looking back, it was idyllic,” Fidler said. “You didn’t worry about crime or traffic, it was a very rural area. The big items were the waterfront and the oysters.”
When he was “just a little fellow,” Fidler went swimming in the river every day.
“All the children did too, it was just the way it was,” he said, remembering he and his pals using nets to try to catch any crabs or fish they could as they enjoyed nature’s bounty.
“The other attraction to me was the steamboat and I just thought that was the most fascinating thing,” Fidler said. “They’d be here at least three or four times a week and whenever they came I was right there watching the boats load and unload.”
At that time, steamboats were the main transportation for tourists, produce, cattle and other goods. Sharps was the epicenter of a bustling trade.
“The pier had a roof and stalls that you’d put your cattle in and we’d watch them lead them into or off of the boats,” Fidler said, adding that one of the main reasons the boats were so attractive was that they were registered in Maryland and allowed gambling.
“Our parents would order us to not go in and touch those slot machines, but of course we did,” Fidler said with a mischievous grin. “We’d spend the morning fishing, have a nice little bunch of fish, perch and such, and try to find someone to buy them for a nickel or a dime and we’d head right on into the boat to those machines. To this day I don’t know if we ever won our money back.”
Times, however, changed nearly overnight without warning as the steamboat industry gave way to trucking.
“I didn’t have any idea that I was living in an age that was coming to an end quickly,” Fidler said. “It never occurred to me that the boats would stop and before I knew it in 1937 it all came to a halt.”
Fidler went on to graduate from Farnham High School, during which the retired judge got his first taste of law and politics.
“My high school principle thought I’d be interested in becoming a page for the Virginia State Senate and he asked for my parents’ permission,” Fidler said. “In 1938, at 15-years-old I was asked to work for Senator R. O Norris. I think I must have done a fairly good job because when I went off to college and the legislature came back in session they got in touch with me asking me to come back. That was nice.”
In 1942 Fidler was solicited to become the Head Page, an opportunity he jumped at.
“The bug had bit me and I really enjoyed it, it was fascinating,” he said.
In 1944, everything changed for Fidler when he decided to join the War efforts.
“The Navy had amphibious crafts that deployed troops and they needed officers to operate them, specifically those with a higher education,” Fidler said, adding that he served in the Naval Amphibious Unit in the Pacific until the War ended three years later.
“I was a good waterman,’ Fidler said attributing it to his youth spent on the Rivah. “I knew boats so I was head and shoulders above some but I remember one boy from [the mid-west] who was seasick from here until the Philippines.”
Upon coming home, his time in service allowed him to finish earning his bachelors degree through the G.I Bill and earn a law degree from the University of Richmond in 1949.
“All of that legislative experience as a youngster convinced me I wanted to be a lawyer,” Fidler said. “It was settled in my mind, there was no debate.
“The G.I. Bill was one of the smartest things our culture did, you turn loose all those people just from war and there wasn’t enough employment. They weren’t unleashed on the streets, instead they got an education in a vast amount of trades.”
After law school, Fidler came straight to Warsaw where he worked for Charles H. Ryland, an attorney with 10 years of local experience
“I worked or him 33 years before I became a judge,” Fidler said. “He was a smart guy, not just in law, but in life. I learned so much from him.”
Fidler started practicing in 1949 and soon after met and married his life-long love and beautiful wife, Martha Spencer.
“It didn’t take long for us to fall in love,” Fidler said, adding that his wife has been his greatest support and best friend throughout their marriage.
In 1959, Fidler was elected as the Northern Neck Delegate, an office he held and served from 1960 until 1974.
“Looking back the most important legislature I enacted during my term was the creation of a statewide system of community colleges,” Fidler said. “That has lifted the level of education opportunities for so many people.”
He added that while unpopular at the time due to the necessity to enact a retail sales tax to afford the measure, it has since become one of the most important milestones in Virginia’s secondary educational programs.
“It may be popular now, but I was not making any friends back then,” Fidler said.
According to state records, Fidler was instrumental in making both the Warsaw and Glenn’s Campuses of Rappahannock Community College a reality. Virginia State Department of Education data has since proven that students, specifically those in rural areas such as the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, who start out at a two-year college are more likely to complete their bachelor’s degree or earn a trade license previously unavailable to them prior to the legislature Fidler spearheaded.
In May of 1982, a vacancy in the family courts opened.
“I wanted to be a judge all along,” Fidler said, adding that there was a contest between he and another gentleman, which was eventually decided in his favor by circuit court judges after legislators could not make a firm decision.
“The first time put on robes was in the courthouse in Warsaw. It was exciting,” Fidler said. “The day I was sworn in I went straight down to visit my mother and she was so tickled. Even though she was weak, she knew what was going on. She was so pleased, saying ‘I can’t believe it, my Walther is a judge.’”
Fidler served 13 years before retiring in 1995. He has four children, three girls and a boy.
An active civic member, Fidler is a charter member of the VFW Post 2937 in Warsaw and the eldest member of Milden Presbyterian Church in Sharps, which his grandfather helped establish in 1888 and where he has held nearly every office, including Bible School teacher for more than 50 years. Fidler is a charter member of the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, an organizing director of the Richmond County Little League and the oldest Fellow of the Warsaw-Richmond County Ruritan club.
“People have been good to me and I think that I have been helpful to a lot of people, particularly in law and in the courts,” Fidler said. “I love this county and community. I appreciate them thinking about me and I am honored to be one of the Grand Marshalls in this year’s parade. It is truly wonderful.”