The day after he hung up his robes, "retiring" after 20 years on the bench, Judge George D. Neilson was back at work in D.C. traffic court. A reporter, naturally puzzled, asked what was up.

"It's only for today," Neilson replied, chuckling, according to a yellowed clipping from a January 1960 article. "The court's short-handed this week."

Wronger words rarely have been spoken, in that or any other courtroom. The next day the judge was still there. And the next day. And the next day after that.

As the months passed, then the years, a succession of short-handed chief judges persuaded Neilson to stay just one more year. One day Neilson looked up at a calendar and found that 30 years had elapsed since the day he tried to retire.

The court had been renamed twice. He'd outlasted five robes, five chief judges and eight U.S. presidents. Not one of his contemporaries remained on the bench.

Tomorrow night, at a testimonial dinner at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, Neilson's fellow judges will honor his combined 50 years on the local bench -- apparently the longest term of service in the history of the D.C. courts.

Neilson, now 84, never planned it that way.

"I thought that after a man had done his job, worked faithfully for 20 years, he was entitled to retire," he said in an interview last week. "I thought I'd do a lot of traveling. Or maybe practice law."

At 33, Neilson was one of the youngest judges ever appointed when he arrived in 1940 on the D.C. Municipal Court, which successive rounds of court reform merged into the Court of General Sessions, and then the D.C. Superior Court.

"Seems like yesterday that President {Franklin} Roosevelt nominated me," Neilson said in an interview. "I don't know any judge on any court who can go back as far as I do."

Late last week, he was still handling a full calendar of traffic cases, closer to 51 years on the bench than to 50.

The 1960 newspaper clip, author and paper unknown, described him upon retirement as the court's "longtime scourge of habitual drunks, wife-beaters and chronic traffic offenders."

"Educate and punish was my theme in traffic court," Neilson said. "Educate, and then punish if they don't seem to be educated enough. I think we've been far too lenient in many cases, especially with drinking and driving."

In traffic court last Friday, Neilson was true to his motto.

Standing stooped and bent before him that morning was Earl V. Sloane, a 63-year-old District man who was in court on a motion to reduce his sentence. Sloane had pleaded guilty to two counts of driving while intoxicated and served 120 days of the 180-day sentence. Now, with cap in hand and a bandage covering a deep gash on his forehead, he was asking to go home.

"Based on the defendant's horrendous record, the government would strenuously oppose any reduction in sentence," said an assistant corporation counsel, prosecuting the case.

"What kind of record do we have?" Neilson asked. "Let's have the bare facts."

"Two prior DWI's, so now we have four DWI's altogether," the prosecutor replied.

Neilson raised an eyebrow and turned to Charles H. O'Banion, for the defense.

"Well, what can you do, Mr. O'Banion?" Neilson asked.

"He has an atrocious record," O'Banion said. "But he's done 120 days. This man has been attacked {in jail} and cut above his eye. He suffers from various ailments. He has screws in his feet. I think the message has gotten home to him."

Sloane, pleading his own case, added: "Sir, if you give me this chance, I guarantee you."

"Well, you've had your chance," Neilson replied. "I'd like to help you out but I can't do it in view of your record. Good luck to you. I feel sorry for you, but there's only so much I can do."

So much, for Neilson, included a career-long emphasis on spreading the word about traffic safety. For six years in the 1950s, he served as presiding judge in the "Traffic Court" television series, which brought cameras into the courtroom and built a weekly viewing audience of 200,000.

He became something of a national authority on traffic court, writing professional articles on subjects such as "Firm Traffic Enforcement" and "Traffic Courts Should Educate While They Adjudicate."

Neilson also became an advocate for free legal assistance, appointing lawyers for all defendants before him long before the practice became common.

Born in Logan, Utah, Neilson obtained a bachelor's degree from Utah State University in 1928 and his law degree from George Washington University in 1933.

His first job out of law school? Assistant corporation counsel for the District, assigned to traffic court.

Six years later, plucked by President Roosevelt for a judgeship, Neilson was confirmed by the Senate the day he was nominated for the job.