Photos by Libby Rogers
The office of county clerk is undoubtedly one of the most important in a community, as they process the day-to-day comings and goings of Walker County. Unbeknownst to most of us, the county clerk’s office is comprised of 11 women who do a varied amount of work for the county and its citizens. The clerks at this office work long hours (late if need be) to serve the community to the best of their ability. Contrary to the popular negative stigma associated with government offices, the ladies of the county clerk’s staff proved to be some of the most kind, patient, and helpful people. As Postcards spends a day with the county clerk’s office, we get to experience the behind-the-scenes of the people that keep the most important aspects of our lives orderly, current, and preserved. Kari French, the Walker County Clerk, was elected in 2010 as the first female county clerk in Walker County. A graduate of both Huntsville High School and Sam Houston State University, Kari is a Huntsvillian and Bearkat. French reflects the credit for the work of the office to her incredible County Clerk Staff whose jobs are as follows: Chief Deputy-Mary Harper; Records Preservation-Leigh Wade; Vital Records-Lori Riley; Criminal Misdemeanor-Janet Arreguin; Probate-Stacey Soileau; Records Management-Jessica Dykstra; Recording-Cassidi Hale; Clerk Projects-Linda Perez; Criminal Court-Mary Vonne Brame; and Civil-Maren Gladden.
This office performs extensive duties pertaining to six main departments: Vital Statistics, Recording, Deeds-Real Property, Civil, Criminal Misdemeanor, and Probate. The purpose of the Walker County Clerk is as follows, quoted by Kari French. “We record and preserve records pertaining to real property and personal records, including vital statistics, land titles, deeds, marriage licenses, assumed names, and much more. It is our primary objective to be in compliance with all rules and laws, provide efficient customer service, and to increase access to the records. We are implementing a new, state of the art records management system over the next few months to improve that access, making records available 24 hours a day in a cloud-based virtual environment.” To humble herself and learn the ropes of exactly what her employees do, she spent a week in each of the 10 other positions and learned the specific day-to-day duties and what the position entailed. “How can I tell them how to do something if I don’t know what they’re doing?” Kari says, as if the decision were as obvious as the sky being blue.
We speak with each employee individually about what daily duties look like throughout the two-story offices that encompass the entirety of the clerk’s office. We begin with Mary Harper, Chief Deputy. Her day’s work includes things such as custodial accounts, probate money, cash bonds, weekly court docket report, and an audit review of the registry of the court. “It’s always something new, and we’re always learning something new,” Mary says.
Next is Lori Riley in Vital Records, performing daily duties like processing birth and death certificates and administering marriage licenses (her favorite part). This topic leads to the discussion that effective September 1, 2017 in the state of Texas, you must be a minimum 18 years old to get married. Parental consent is no longer an acceptable method, no matter the age. Also being newly implemented is a law that ensures two people who don’t speak English and wish to get married must each have their own translator present to authenticate what is being said. These new laws are being put into place to ensure the integrity of marriages by tightening up the process and making the verification more legitimate.
“What is the most unusual or interesting thing that has happened to you at work?” I asked each woman. This led to some crazy stories that brought about a popularly used phrase in the office: “We gotta write a book.” I ask them to share a few of the instances, which turned out to be even more entertaining than I’d hoped. One time a lady called in with a sticky situation and asked Linda Perez, “I just buried my husband in the backyard; what do I need to do now?” When asked to divulge one of the most unusual scenarios she’s seen at work, Lori replies, “One time we had a couple who came to get their marriage license. They stood here for about three hours debating whether or not they wanted to get married.” With the office closing soon on a Friday, the ladies advised the couple to go home and think about it and come back on Monday. Whether or not they came back, I don’t remember. But you can’t make this stuff up, folks.
The ladies face their fair share of jaw-dropping surprises that keep them on their toes and ready to solve the next problem. Regardless of the situation, whether it be happy or sad, the employees of this office genuinely care about each person and will help with a smile on their face. French stresses, “We cannot give legal advice, so it becomes difficult sometimes when someone wants us to tell them how to do something. In this office, we only record and process, but we can advise them to consult with an attorney or call legal aid. We just can’t bend on some things.” It is important to maintain integrity to ensure a trustworthy government office.
Cassidi Hale, the Recording Deputy, is the youngest in the office, ringing in at a mere 19 years old. Her age is no hindrance, as Cassidi handles cattle brands, deeds, and title company paperwork adding to the hundreds of documents a day. “Most of what we do here can be summed up as attention to detail and repetition. From its inception in 1846, this office has been the recording place for over 40 types of documents relating to all aspects of life,” French adds. Maren Gladden is the Civil Deputy, and her duties entail e-filing for civil cases, sending files to judges, and overseeing numerous processes. Stacy Soileau-Oates, the Probate Clerk, was due to be married the next day, and her face was beaming with joy during our visit. She processes paperwork from hearings, e-filing, and handles guardianships. Next, we move to Linda Perez, who works on projects. Perez retired, but came back three months later because they just couldn’t live without her. She has done a little bit of everything in the office and is currently working to preserve many county projects so old that the paper is flaking off of the impeccable hand-drawn sketches. The documents must be handled tenderly until they can be preserved and archived for safekeeping.
We move downstairs to the deed room, a room the staff painted themselves to be mindful of taxpayer money. The deed room is aligned with tables, and the walls are lined with shelves of giant bound books containing a gold mine of information to historians and those who wish to follow land ownership throughout the years. We meet Leigh Wade in Records Preservation and Jessica Dykstra in Records Management. Leigh Wade is a great resource for helping people trace down property, and she has a vast knowledge of the deed room’s purposes. She speaks with surveyors who need to trace the land’s details and takes great pride in being a custodian of the county’s records.
I notice Jessica’s computer screensaver is her pet cat, and I feel a connection to her, as my cat is my cell phone screensaver. Jessica handles records management, digitizing commissioners court minutes, and is assisting French in a project to sort through and organize a plethora of old records on the fourth floor. Across the hall are Mary Vonne Brame and Janet Arreguin, Criminal Court Clerk and Criminal Misdemeanors Clerk. Mary Vonne’s tasks include jury pull, entering pleas, and processing warrants. Janet’s duties include intake/filing cases from the district attorney’s office, defendant payments, and subpoenas. While visiting with these ladies, the topic of the spooky fourth floor comes up. The fourth floor is known as a creepy place where ghosts and spirits are believed to stay because of strange noises and occurrences. There have been many instances where a motion-sensor light in the office has turned on by itself, and they blame this on the nice spirit of the late Judge Gates. Once, a clock fell off the wall and ended up 20 feet away from where it was. The ladies like to joke about the ghosts in the building, and a few even have nicknames.
The group kept us laughing throughout the afternoon with their unique personalities and wits. When it came time for a group photo, the ladies from the offices on the second floor had to take an elevator downstairs. I stood in the hallway as the elevator doors opened and they walked out giggling. Leigh nudged whoever was next to her and said, “We’re on the first floor now ladies, we have to be civil.” I stood there and watched with a smile on my face as they bumped into each other’s shoulders and strolled down the hall laughing in camaraderie. Right before walking outside for the group photo, Mary Vonne turns to the group and spreads her mouth into a wide smile, one of her top front teeth blacked out. “What is that?!” someone squealed, and we all burst into laughter. “Eyeliner,” she said, and smudged it off with her sleeve, eyes tearing up from laughing so hard. “This is why we can’t take you into public,” another voice chimed in. Seriously people, even if you don’t need their services, go to the county clerk’s office for free entertainment!
We wrap up our day with the Walker County Clerk’s Office with some group photos outside on the front steps. Kari and I return to her office to share some final thoughts before parting ways. The passion to help others is a real and evident goal of this office.
In recent years, the clerk’s office has achieved great success in many projects and continues to pursue new responsibilities. “I want your great-great-grandchildren to have access to all of this history one day,” French says, her ideal summed up into one thought. They are currently developing and implementing new technology advances, and the state-mandated Civil and Probate E-file are now online; Criminal E-file and E-Recording will be available in 2018. More active projects include: Archival imaging of Real Property Records from 1996 to 1961 that will be available in 2018 (prior to this, the clerk’s office had images back to 1996 and indexes to 1960); Indexing and scanning commissioners court records and birth and death records; and digitization of the county court for online access 24/7.