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Saltwater Portrait

Horns bring wit, wisdom to life's adventures

Recently honored for work with high school mock trials
June 25, 2019

Two crystal gavels are the latest of a long list of tributes a Lewes couple has earned over the years.

As 2019 winners of the Justice Gene Franchini Golden Gavel Award, Jim and Joan Horn were honored for more than a decade of work with the National High School Mock Trail Championship.

Jim, a Magistrate Court judge since 2004, started volunteering for the Delaware High School Mock Trial competition in 2006, and Joan soon followed.

“We're the only husband and wife team that participates in the national competition,” Jim said.

Jim said he has enjoyed his work with the mock trial program, which teaches high school students about the legal system through a mock trial setting. Students participate as attorneys and witnesses, while a judge, such as Jim, presides. Joan volunteers as a courtroom liaison making sure the courtroom is ready, similar to a bailiff. Most of all, Joan keeps Jim in line. Probably the way it has been throughout their decades of marriage.

Jim, born to a family that settled in Rehoboth Beach in 1873, and Joan, a Pennsylvanian, met when he was at Dickinson Law School and she was teaching in the area.

“That trap was sprung,” Jim said describing the day he met Joan with his outgoing flair. “I never knew what hit me.”

With her characteristic calm and soft-spoken voice, Joan replied, “Thus changed my life.” Smiling her sweet smile, she added, “It was much more interesting after I met you.”

So it goes with those two. She's the yin to his yang. The Costello to his Abbott. The Martin to his Lewis.

After law school and a brief stint working for the Delaware attorney general, Jim used his legal training to open a business, Confidential Services, that he and Joan owned for 37 years.

The company provided alarm services and security guards for functions across the state. The couple also did their share of detective work for the company's private detective branch. Locating witnesses, checking on the welfare of children and investigating insurance claims were some of the cases they took on.

But Joan clams up when asked about the spiciest investigations. “We can't tell,” she says, still with a sweet smile. “We'd have to change the names to protect the guilty,” Jim chimes in.

The only story she shares is about a Canadian wife who called and asked them to track down her husband. Turned out he had a second wife in Dover, Joan said.

Jim lights up when he talks about the security detail his company provided during the heyday of NASCAR at Dover Downs.

“It was wild,” he said. “I was in charge of victory lane.”

Once the race was over, Jim said, he personally drove each of the race car drivers to the media center. He enjoyed his one-on-one time with Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. “We still see Bobby when we go up to the track,” he said.

The Horns gradually sold pieces of their company, starting with the alarm company, then the security guard business. Jim said he kept the detective company going until an opportunity arose in Magistrate Court.

He got the job, and at 84, he still works 40 hours a week, even working the graveyard shifts.

“I'm the oldest practicing judge in the state,” he said.

When asked how he stays so young, he quips, “Single malt whiskey.” Only slightly on a more serious note, he says he runs about three miles a day near the couple's Lewes home in Highland Acres. “The secret is running on the grass,” he said. “It's like running on a carpet.”

At 87, Joan said she walks for exercise, but the couple stays active traveling, a passion the two share.

The couple fondly recalls a visit in 1971 to Lewes, England, when they presented the mayor with a letter from the mayor of Lewes, Delaware. “Here come these two people with an introduction from the mayor, and it started a connection,” Jim said.

The following year, an English contingent traveled to Lewes, Delaware, and the Lewes contingent traveled to England a few years later. “We had these visits back and forth, and it was a lot of fun,” Jim said.

“We've maintained our friendships with families,” Joan said. “We've had families and kids visit.”

Although the couple has no children of their own, they are dedicated to helping young people through the mock trial competitions. Joan can recount without pause all the states they have visited as part of the national competition. Next year, she's already planning their trip to Evansville, Ind.

“We're joined at the hip,” Jim says with a wink and a smile.