When Wenda Travers resigned her position with the Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney two weeks ago, her colleagues wanted to give her a gift that would be useful in her new position as a General District Court judge.
They gave her a crystal clock. "Maybe she'll remember she's got to take a little time off every once in a while," said Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert.
Travers took the bench Monday as Prince William County's first woman General District Court judge, replacing Judge William R. Murphy, who retired. As a judge, Travers, 41, will earn about $80,000 a year overseeing criminal, civil and traffic cases.
Noted for being meticulous in her case preparation, Travers's colleagues in the Manassas courthouse say she is not likely to slow down. She always was prepared in court and has been known to express her discontent when police investigators and others involved in her cases were not so professional.
In the eight years she spent with the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, she seldom took a vacation that wasn't related to her job or that of her physician husband. She often was the first lawyer to arrive in the morning and usually one of the last to leave. And prosecutors stopping by the office on a Saturday or Sunday learned long ago not to be surprised to see Travers at her desk, poring over law books and case files.
"She may work too hard," said Ebert, Travers's former boss. "If she has a fault, and I wouldn't say it is a fault, it may be that she could beat a horse to death on a case."
Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen, a former prosecutor and friend of Travers's, said her work habits will be an asset in her new job. "When she practiced law, she was always well prepared and it appeared that way in court," he said. "She's well schooled in the law and she has an understanding of how trials are conducted and how trials work. And she has a visceral sense of fairness."
Travers said her work habits have gotten her labeled by some lawyers as impatient, a misunderstanding she wants to make sure doesn't follow her to the bench. "I talk fast, I walk fast, and I think that gives the impression of being impatient," she said. "Maybe I need to come down from warp speed."
Colleagues described Travers in her prosecutor days as an advocate for abused children who was single-minded in her pursuit of their abusers. At five feet tall and 100 pounds, Travers was able to gain children's trust where others may seem intimidating, Ebert said.
"She wanted to do the best she could for the child," he said. "Her husband is a doctor, so there is a lot that she knows about the medical effects of abuse and she understands medical information better than most attorneys."
In describing Travers, people around the courthouse used words such as "fireball" and "energetic." She said hard work is an ethic she learned from her Irish-Welsh immigrant parents while growing up in Newbury, N.Y. Her father was a jeweler and her mother did volunteer work for charity groups, and they taught her to fend for herself.
"If you want things done, you've got to do them yourself," she said. "If you want to see things happen, you have to make them happen because no one is going to give it to you."
As an undergraduate student at Wheaton College, Travers originally planned to enter medical school. But after the grind of college work, she decided she needed a break and took a job as a technician for a "workaholic" surgeon.
A math enthusiast, she entertained the notion of going into accounting; she also considered psychology until she figured that law would be a good choice "because it was only three years of school."
At law school at Howard University, Travers said she was exposed to another side of life as one of a few whites in a predominantly black college. And while she valued the experience of law school, the curriculum was no walk in the park, she said.
"It was read, read, read," Travers said. "It was a real drag."
After graduation, Travers set up a private practice locally, where her husband had also set up shop. She joined Ebert's office in 1982.
"When I joined the office, she was the only woman and she taught me about trying a case hard, then going shopping," said prosecutor Mary Grace O'Brien. "She was always available for the younger prosecutors to lend an ear or to give them a piece of chocolate."
Travers celebrated her first day Monday with chocolate, her passion. The day had gone better than she had expected. She tried three traffic cases and "nobody went to jail."
Then she joked about the second gift her friends at the prosecutor's office had given her: a one-pound hunk of chocolate. "I was about to break that up and start on it when a colleague brought me some chocolate chip cookies, so I had those instead," she said. "That definitely helped my day."