As president of the Colmer Junior High parent-teacher organization, Judge Sharon Willis Sigalas heeded the principal’s sage advice: “You never know what you can do until you try.”
“(It) sounded simple, but for a young woman who was frightened to talk in front of a group of more than three, it was a steep hill to climb,” Sigalas recalls. “But climb it I did, and when the PTO accomplished a lofty goal that year, and I stood before a packed crowd, my written speech was forgotten; I spoke to the crowd from my heart and have not stopped talking to crowds since that night.”
For two decades, the wife, mother and grandmother has used her well-honed voice to advocate for the most vulnerable members of society: children. As she retires from her role as Jackson County Youth Court judge, Sigalas’s heart is filled with gratitude for treasured memories and enduring friendships.
“Throughout my 20 years on the bench, I have had children keep in touch with me or come back to see me and let me know how they are doing; their successes were my success stories,” she says. “I knew I was making a difference, but when my retirement was announced and e-mails and messages from parents, foster parents and grown children began to come with sweet messages and thanks for what I had done for them, I knew I had made the right choice 20 years ago.”
The seeds of Sigalas’s distinguished career were sewn in Springhill, Louisiana, where she says she “lived a pretty sheltered life” with parents who exemplified good character and a strong work ethic. Her family spent lots of time in church, watched very little TV and vacationed with relatives.
“Until I took youth court practice in law school, I never knew children were sexually abused, tortured or murdered by their own family,” Sigalas says. “My eyes and heart were opened to an area of the law where I knew I could make a difference.”
She married Donald “Donnie” Sigalas while he was a student at Ole Miss Law School, and as a young mom, she worked during the day and studied for her business administration degree after the kids went to bed. On the nights she wasn’t in school, she walked the neighborhood selling Avon and booking Home Interior parties.
For many years, she served as her husband’s secretary and paralegal – a job that involved preparing his trial notebook and noting questions she deemed important. She recalls one particular personal injury case she felt certain Donnie would win, but he arrived home looking dejected after the jury rendered its verdict.
“I was devastated that day and told him I was going to law school because I just knew I could have won that case,” she says. “Shortly after that night, I took the LSAT, and the rest is history.”
Sigalas was 38 when she entered the University of Mississippi School of Law, and her goal was to graduate at 40. She walked the stage and received her juris doctorate degree two months after her 4Oth birthday.
Sigalas began accepting youth court clientele, and the judge quickly appointed her guardian ad litem for many neglected children in the system. She next set her sights on becoming Jackson County Youth Court judge and was elected to the position in November of 2002.
“I loved talking to the children, earning their trust and representing them in the courtroom,” Sigalas says. “I was a fighter for those who could not protect themselves, and I knew I wanted to continue working in this area of the law.”
Now officially retired, Sigalas — known to many as “Nana” and “Judge Nana” — has more time to devote to her grandchildren, as well as her favorite hobbies: writing, painting, reading and photography.
“My favorite out-of-the-way trips are to bookstores in small towns and old cemeteries,” she says. “I love to read old hand-written epitaphs, but that is a story for another day.”
Sigalas’s advice to the person who will replace her on the bench in January is to “be fair, listen well and do not think you know it all.” Ever community minded, she plans to be involved in efforts to help those who have made bad choices turn their lives around, clear their records and start fresh.
“I truly believe that if we give people hope and the tools to achieve their goals, we can change our community,” Sigalas says. “If I make a difference in one life, that is a blessing.”