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January 29, 2013

Photography helped former Payne County judge cope with stresses of the bench

STILLWATER, Okla. — Sleep is hard to come by when you are a judge.

“You make decisions that change people’s lives — that is a good thing and a bad thing,” said former Payne County judge Michael Stano. He donned the black robe for nearly nine years in what he described as one of best and worst jobs around.

While he got a deep sense of satisfaction from the public service he was performing, it was also source of severe stress. High blood pressure and heartburn are occupational hazards, Stano said. Many cases are not black and white and can come down to the judge’s decision based on the “green book” — Oklahoma’s book of statutes.

Hardest of all was deciding who got the children in domestic cases. He would often lose sleep wondering if he did the right thing.

“I tend to ruminate,” Stano said.

There was also the stress of the bickering and hostility that sometimes seeps into the courtroom — animosity between lawyers after a big case, anger at a judge following a decision or a cruel tone aimed at a witness during questioning.

Stano said this is not common in Payne County where everyone in court tends to have good working relationships. But it’s not always perfect.

“I will not miss attorneys screaming at each other,” Stano said. “It gives me heartburn even now.”

He recalled one incident in Payne County when after a criminal trial the winning attorney offered a hand to the losing side. It was refused.

With the immense weight of stress and judicial responsibility, Stano needed an outlet. He turned back to his days as a boy scout building a pinhole camera out of a Folgers coffee tin and electrical tape.

“There’s a part of be that really believes photography saved my life,” Stano said. These days he shoots with a Nikon digital camera.

His photos are serene and peaceful — mostly of buildings, architecture and windows shot against big blue skies with swirling clouds. They look dreamlike and surreal with intense colors and striking detail.

He achieves this by combining multiple exposures and shooting with a special lens which allows some X-rays to pass through.

Twice his photos have won the Oklahoma Bar Association’s art competition and his photos have been selected to show in various galleries.

“I don’t do people,” Stano said. His photographic passion is architecture, something he thinks comes from his mother who worked at a wholesale heating and plumbing distributor. She encouraged him to go into the field of design and engineering.

Instead Stano spent most of his career teaching speech and debate at Oklahoma State University before starting a career in law in his 40s.

Stano, with his white stubble and thick rimmed black glasses, now spends his days on a different floor of the court house. He works in the court clerk’s office mostly shuffling around the building doing data entry work.

“I don’t think people appreciate how hard the people in the court clerk’s office work,” he said. Since working there he has had to start eating more because of all the calories he is burning. Most nights he goes home exhausted. But he isn’t complaining.

“I’m sleeping better than I’ve slept in a long time,” he said.

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