Howard County prosecutor Michael D. Rexroad has something to look forward to every time he steps into court for another trial -- the cheerful countenance of bailiff Ambrose D. Cross, the county's oldest employee.
"He treats everybody with courtesy. I have never seen him without a smile on his face or a a nice word for someone," Rexroad said.
The bailiff who turned 80 earlier this month recently and hopes to stay on the job until he reaches the century mark.
"I like this job as good as any I have been on," said the white-haired and moustachioed Cross.
The Ellicott City native has been a fixture in the county courthouse for nearly two decades.
Asked about his chances ofstaying on the job another 20 years, he flashed an index finger in the air, saying: "It all depends on The Man upstairs. He has treated me real good."
For now, he said, his health is fine. "I feel like amillion dollars," Cross said, flashing a dance step.
His only hindrance is "this old right leg," which causes him to walk stiff-leggedat times.
"It's rheumatism," Cross explained. "I'll be all right.I rub it once in a while. There's got to be something wrong with a person -- and better a bad leg than a bad heart.
"When I get to thepoint of being out of my mind or just drag along, I will ask Him to take me," he said. "Hopefully, He will take me before I get to that point."
Cross' popularity in the courthouse, where his job is to see to the needs of the jury and keep order in the courtroom, is evidenced by the reaction of courthouse friends when he was attacked several years ago and had his badge stolen.
"The shock and revulsion of everyone around the courthouse that one of our own had been attacked is unlike anything I have ever seen," Rexroad said.
Cross enjoys the camaraderie.
"The people keep me going," he said. "I stayed outof work for six weeks once and it drove me nuts. Seeing people smileis what keeps me alive."
Cross grew up in Ellicott City, in a home along what used to be called "Hell Time Pike" but now is known as Old Columbia Pike. He began work early, starting at age 12 as a butlerfor a well-to-do Ellicott City family.
But most of his work life was spent in the Main Street post office in Ellicott City. There, he worked in maintenance and as a substitute mailman for 43 years. He retired in 1975.
He also worked briefly as a sheriff's deputy duringthe '70s. He still wears the khaki shirt and brown trousers with a stripe that were his uniform in those days.
During World War II, Cross was a sergeant in the Army Quartermaster Corps, where he saw combat during the Battle of the Bulge and was a driver in the Red Ball Express that equipped Gen. George Patton's tanks with ammunition and fuel.
While Cross relishes his work, overseeing the needs of jurors is not without its dull moments.
"Most of the cases that are boring tend to be civil in nature," he said. "The criminal cases keep you up to par. . . . I don't have any pity for criminals, but sometimes they elicit my sympathy."
The saddest cases, he said, involve juvenile offenders: "I feel sorry for them that they have started out wrong and no one has corrected them before they got in real trouble."
Retired Judge James Macgill got Cross a job as bailiff in 1976 and taught him the different aspects of the role, which included a "hear ye, hear ye" chant to announce the arrival of the judge.
In the early days on the job, Cross said he used to shout out a front window toannounce that court was in session. Now, he said, Circuit Court clerks make the announcement more sedately in the courtroom when the judge takes the bench.
The only time he got himself in trouble was in the late '70s, when he modified the "hear ye" chant. Instead, he hollered: "Here Comes da Judge," a refrain popularized by comedian Flip Wilson.
He was summoned back to judge's chambers, where Macgill reminded him that "he did not teach me to do that. Yes, I slipped up that day."