Inside the Courts

Prosecutor emphasized life and laughter in the face of his disease

Bryan Crocker had this thing about “The Cancer Face,” those sincere expressions of concern and sympathy from friends and acquaintances that drove him up the wall.

So for the four years between the discovery of his esophageal cancer and his death this week, the longtime Mecklenburg assistant district attorney had a standing request:

“He told me, ‘I need you to be normal,’ ” said attorney Ryan Bolick, Crocker’s fraternity brother at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“My best friend has cancer. What do you mean normal? But you know, our relationship never changed.”

Anna Greene, a longtime friend and colleague at the district attorney’s office, puts it this way: “He wanted us all to help him live. Not treat him like he was dying.”

Crocker’s friends tried hard to honor that request, right up through last Friday, when Greene and her lawyer husband Michael, along with Bolick and Crocker’s wife Sara drove the 44-year-old attorney to hospice. County prosecutor Heather Taraska followed with some of Crocker’s things. Anna Greene held her friend’s hand the entire trip.

Gary Bryan Crocker Jr. loved old buildings. Suitably, his memorial service will be from 2-4 p.m. Saturday at the Great Aunt Stella Center. The building has room to handle the turnout for a man who friends say had the lifelong knack of making big rooms seem small and friends feel like family.

Crocker was born in Washington, D.C., to a State Department family who took him to overseas assignments. He inherited a lifelong love of opera and theater, of good cheese and wine and presidential china. He was equally obsessed with Washington football and Tar Heel basketball. And even during his illness, Crocker flew to Nassau, Bahamas to watch the North Carolina basketball team play.

A graduate of Tulane law school, Crocker worked as a public defender before joining the district attorney’s office.

“I think he had a better perspective of the defense attorney and the defendant than some of us,” said prosecutor Bruce Lillie, who interviewed Crocker before he was hiring.

His experience as a public defender showed Crocker that his true calling was as an advocate for victims, Lillie said. Later in his career, Crocker became an effective mentor and teacher to young attorneys, passing along lessons about fairness, authenticity and moral codes. By then he had made friends with almost every segment of the court system, from judges to cops to clerks.

To a person, Crocker’s close friends say they tried to keep their grief hidden when they were around him. Now, all bets are off.

Expect a lot of laughter at Aunt Stella’s Saturday afternoon. Expect some pent-up tears, too.