Last week was only Renee Cardwell Hughes' first as the new CEO of the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross.

Yet 16 years as a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge - 11 in homicide, presiding over the city's most tragic, violent cases - seemed ancient history.

It was May 17, Hughes' second day on the job and she was busy touring Red Cross House, an eight-year-old shelter for displaced families at 40th Street and Powelton Avenue in West Philadelphia.

There was staff to meet and data to be absorbed about a facility Hughes had already decided to make a focus of her fund-raising.

"No other Red Cross chapter has this," Hughes enthused over the spotless facility. "This is a model."

Red Cross House cost $4.5 million and, according to Red Cross spokesman Dave Shrader, was built there because the mile radius around it had the most fires in the city.

The shelter's 26 suites with kitchenettes can house up to 120 people in various family configurations. It's usually 75 to 80 percent full.

The services are free but cost the chapter $750,000 a year to operate. Hughes said she wanted to create an endowment and use earnings to cover costs.

Many at the Criminal Justice Center were surprised when Hughes, 55, announced her retirement. She seemed to savor the rough-and-tumble of criminal courts.

Tall and elegant with courtly Southern manners and accent to match, Hughes describes herself as "Virginian to the bone and back."

But that demeanor covered a low flash point for lawyers or defendants who strayed, a temper that over 16 years earned critics among prosecutors and defense lawyers and, recently, the state Supreme Court.

Hughes said she was surprised in February when a corporate headhunter called to ask if she wanted to be considered for the Red Cross post.

"I loved homicide," Hughes said. "I loved the complexity of the law. I loved working with my homicide detectives and my lawyers. I had amazing people working with me.

"But I've always known there was something more for me to do. I didn't know what it was, but I knew I could only leave the court if I could continue to make a difference. I knew I could make a difference here."

Born in Lynchburg, Va., Hughes was one of five children. Her father, who died in 1996, never graduated from high school but worked three jobs - sandblaster, cabbie, and janitor - to ensure Hughes and her siblings went to college. Her mother, a retired line supervisor at a General Electric plant, still lives in Lynchburg.

"They always had an absolute pristine vision that we would achieve great things," Hughes said.

After a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Virginia, Hughes got a law degree in 1985 at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.

"I wanted to represent real people," Hughes said. "But in D.C., everybody seemed to be a lobbyist."

She was pointed to her future by Georgetown professor Sam Dash.

Dash, who died at 79 in 2004, was the lead lawyer for the U.S. Senate committee that investigated the 1972 Watergate scandal. But Dash grew up in West Philadelphia and in 1954 became the city's youngest district attorney.

Philadelphia was where to go for "real people," Hughes said Dash told her.

"I thought Philadelphia was the most amazing place," Hughes said. "Physically, it was just beautiful, and the people of Philadelphia were warm and open."

Hughes quickly established herself. By 1990 she was president of the Barrister Association of Philadelphia, the local chapter of the National Bar Association, for black lawyers. In 1993, she was part of a group that founded the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Philadelphia.

"She was community-based, energetic, intelligent, a hard worker," recalled Leigh M. Skipper, chief federal defender in Philadelphia, who in 1992 formed a law firm with Hughes and other black lawyers.

"She was political and she was astute and she knew a lot of people," Skipper said.

Among them was a young state legislator, Vincent Hughes, now a state senator representing parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties. The couple are divorced with a son, Alek, a West Point cadet.

After she was appointed judge in 1995, Hughes maintained ties to community groups, including Public Health Management Corp., which provides community-based medical care to more than 123,000 people.

It was as PHMC's vice chair that Hughes said she believes she caught the eye of those looking for a new Red Cross CEO.

Hughes said she wanted to show that the Red Cross was more than blood drives and disasters.

Red Cross House is a stabilizing force in Powelton. And Red Cross Centers in 15 Philadelphia high schools help teach teens interpersonal skills to succeed.

"That's something I saw time and again in court, a lack of empathy," Hughes said, referring to young people charged with crimes. "Too many of those people don't care. Well, [the center] is a place where people care. We exemplify that."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.