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'Icing on the cake'

Jacquinn Williams | 11/2/2011, 9:16 a.m.
This portrait of Judge Judith Dilday is displayed in a Cambridge courtroom.

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This portrait of Judge Judith Dilday is displayed in a Cambridge courtroom.

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This portrait of Judge Judith Dilday is displayed in a Cambridge courtroom.

Judge Judith Dilday is having the time of her life exploring the world – and spoiling her grandchildren

“The aspect of being ‘first’ isn’t necessarily fun,” said former Massachusetts Probate and Family Court Circuit Judge Judith Nelson Dilday.

But Dilday has had a lot of firsts.

She was the first African American woman to serve on the probate and family court in Massachusetts; the first black woman to work at the district attorney’s office and she co-founded the first African American female-owned law firm in the state — Burnham, Hines and Dilday — before serving on the bench. Though her career has been built on “firsts,” she doesn’t appear to be caught up in the hype usually assigned to trailblazers.

“I did what I was doing at the time,” she explained. “Sometimes you feel like you’re beating your head against the ceiling. But when teachable moments arose, I would try and slip something in. There were a lot of teachable moments.”

She hails from Pittsburgh — now known for its hard won rebirth after the end of the manufacturing boom —  where she grew up surrounded by family with strong beliefs about the importance of education.

“My family believed that education is the savior for our race,” Dilday said.

She received her undergraduate degree in French from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966 and was a public school teacher for four years in her hometown. Growing up her mother told her that she should be a lawyer.

“ ‘Me?’ I used to say. I didn’t see that in myself,” she recalled.

After teaching, Dilday wanted a change of scenery, a new start. She packed up her things and headed to Boston. When she got here, Dilday found herself in uber-educated social circles. She quickly decided to go back to school. She contemplated getting a master’s in French, but later decided against it and headed to law school.

“Law school was very frightening,” she said. “There are no tests until the end of the year so I kept wondering if I was doing enough or doing it right.”

Little by little, she finished up law school and landed a job at the district attorney’s office. By that time, she had met her husband James S. Dilday in law school and they were beginning to start a family.

“Socially, being the first black woman in the DA’s office was not always comfortable,” she said. “It got worse when I got pregnant. It was even hard to find maternity clothes. Women, especially pregnant women didn’t work in those days. People would see me in court and call me first. They wanted to get me out!”

Dilday spent 16 years on the bench before retiring in 2009. Since then, she’s been spending time doing whatever she wants to do. Dilday is an avid traveler whose attitude is to leave no stone unturned.

“My most recent trip was to Nevada, Utah and Arizona with my sister. It’s not to be missed. People traveled from all over the world to see it. It was worth it, she shared. “I want to step foot on every continent. I haven’t been to South America yet.”