GREEN COVE SPRINGS – There was a time Don Lester dreamed of playing heavy-handed guitar lick for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or the melodic introduction to Yes’ “Roundabout.”
“I briefly entertained that idea when I was in my 20s,” he said, “but I realized I wouldn’t be good enough. I decided to get a real job and went to law school.”
Now a Circuit Court Judge for Clay County, Lester still plays in-between court sessions and reading case law. He tries to spend an hour a day with his acoustic guitar, picking music that brings him a moment of inner peace in a job of difficult decisions that comes with determining justice for society and its criminals.
“This job can be pretty intense, as you see,” he said from his office at the Clay County Courthouse. “When I sit on the couch in my office and play, it clears your mind. It’s a way to meditate.”
Lester used to be the lawyer for many of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and 38 Special. His connection with Johnny and Donnie Van Zant is so strong, he was invited to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first concert of the tribute tour at Oakland, California – 10 years following the band’s plane crash in 1977.
“After I really got to know them, you realize these stars are ordinary people with extraordinary talent,” Lester said. “In the book ‘Tipping Point,’ you see where to get to the top of the game, you need to work 10,000 hours at it. You have to be relentless. You have to put in the time, and they’ve done that.”
Lester’s diligence has been in the courtroom. He was appointed judge by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010, and he’s been on the bench since. His highest-profile case involved Donald Davidson, a Clay County man who was sentenced to Florida’s Death Row in September for the murder of a Middleburg woman and the rape of her 10-year-old daughter. It’s the only person Lester’s sentenced to death.
Nearly 50 years ago, Lester was in the U.S. Air Force, playing side gigs in Germany. He played country, top 40 and blues.
“Germans really love country-western music,” he said.
He picked law school over encores, but his love for the guitar morphed into fingerstyle acoustic.
“If you can’t sing, you can get by playing a fingerstyle guitar,” he said.
Fingerstyle is a technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings with the fingertips and not using a pick. Some of the classic songs featuring fingerstyle include: “Fire and Rain,” “Fast Car,” “Dust in the Wind,” “Landslide” and Lester’s favorite, “Banish Misfortune” by Richard Thompson.
One of his guitars was found in a heap of garbage. He was walking his dog one morning and saw a guitar case sticking from a pile of rubbish destined for the dump. He opened the case and found a Washburn guitar. While it’s a relatively inexpensive piece, he had it reconditioned to join his collection.
“For as long as I’ve been playing, I should be better,” Lester said with a laugh.
Lester is approaching the end of his term. At 70, he’s thinking about playing his guitar more and using his gavel less.
“Being a judge has been highly-rewarding,” Lester said. “Who knows, I might come back as a senior judge.”