Children First

Eileen Olds says destiny made her a trailblazer.

By Arthur Hill
This is an image of Eileen Olds

Eileen Olds
Photo by Bill Manley

“My calling is to make a difference,” says Eileen Olds (Psychology ’79). “I believe that I have been called to make a difference in the lives of the children and the families that I serve.”

Chance meetings and “failures” with silver linings—otherwise known as “destiny”—have led her to where she is, says Olds, a judge on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Chesapeake, Va., since 1995, the first woman and the first African American in the city’s history to sit on the bench. “When I look back on my life, I can see there were moments of revelation. I now understand that I have gone through a natural progression of events. You join a path that was chosen for you to take.”

Attending the University of Virginia was on that predestined path. A chance meeting with Lloyd Ricks, then dean of admissions, led to the Chesapeake native entering the fourth class that included women. And she says that if she had not run for state legislature—a race she lost by 87 votes—she might not have become a judge. “I was appointed at least in part by the efforts of my opponent after he took office,” she says.

It’s a destiny filled with trailblazing and perseverance. After being elected her middle school’s first African-American student-council president, the school abolished the council, presumably to prevent her from taking office.

After graduating with honors from the University, she became one of four African Americans in her class at the College of William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law, the first African American in private practice in Chesapeake and, at 26, one of the youngest presidents of her local NAACP chapter. Last year, the 3,000-member American Judges Association, an international organization headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., elected her its president—the first African-American and only the fourth woman president in its 50-year history.

Early in her career, juvenile justice became her passion. Olds realized that the “most devastating and gut-wrenching criminal cases” were those involving the abuse and neglect of children. “I know absolutely that dysfunction in families has an enormous impact on the futures of innocent children,” she says.

Over the years, she has fulfilled her goal to protect and defend them. “I recognized my ability to advocate effectively,” she said. “My selection as a juvenile and domestic relations judge was a natural progression for me.”

At the American Judges Association, Olds has established an outreach program called Tell It to the Judge, a multiyear effort to seek input from the general public about the judicial process. The AJA is holding events around the country that allow citizens to talk to panels of judges about their experience with the judicial process and offer recommendations for change. “The most important thing that citizens are looking for is an opportunity to be heard—not necessarily a favorable outcome,” says Olds.

Olds also believes the nation’s judges will gain from opinions and recommendations of citizens whose lives have been changed by decisions made in the nation’s courts. “We’re the gatekeepers of the system,” she says. “We have to better understand how others perceive us.”

What does the future hold for Olds? Except for her belief that her travels along a predetermined path of progress will continue, she has no idea. She wants to offer a message of “hope and possibility” to children, and she’ll go “where the Lord leads me” to deliver her message. “It’s worked well so far,” she says.