Former Circuit Clerk Vinita Thompson dies

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 12/21/17

Former Circuit Clerk Vinita Thompson of Jasper, who became a reliable, hard-working fixture at the Walker County Courthouse as she worked in various positions in that office for 38 years, died Wednesday. She was 83.

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Former Circuit Clerk Vinita Thompson dies

Posted

Former Circuit Clerk Vinita Thompson of Jasper, who became a reliable, hard-working fixture at the Walker County Courthouse as she worked in various positions in that office for 38 years, died Wednesday. She was 83.

Thompson died at Cordova Health and Rehabilitation, according to a death announcement released by Kilgore-Green Funeral Home in Jasper on Wednesday.

Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie said Wednesday he considered Thompson a close friend.

“I hated to hear that. She and I, we’ve been friends and worked together over 30 years,” Guthrie said. “If ever there would be a true pioneer at the courthouse, Vinita would be one of those. She is just respected by most everyone.” 

Guthrie said she was much like himself in her leadership style.

“She was somewhat old-school in the way she ran the office. She was iron-clad tough,” he said. “She expected the most from everyone who worked for her.” 

He said when he was a sheriff’s deputy, Thompson was “invaluable” as she would do anything for the deputies.

“She was always there for us. It didn’t matter if she had to come there at night to help you get something done. She would, Guthrie said.

Guthrie noted she and her friend, the late Circuit Judge James C. Brotherton, were at the courthouse about as long as anyone else he could recall. They retired at the same time and were featured together in a retirement ceremony in 2007.

He noted she was also close to former Sheriff John Mark Tirey, and sometimes Tirey, Thompson and Guthrie would go out to eat together.

“We’d have to leave the county because everyone knew us and wanted to talk about their troubles,” he said with a laugh. “So we left to go out of county, and a lot of times we would run into people there who were from the county.” 

Circuit Clerk Susan Odom, who worked with her for 16 years, remembered how dedicated she was to the job.

“This office meant the world to her. She dedicated a lot of time in her life to it,” Odom said. “She rarely took vacations. This was very important to her.”

Odom said Thompson worked almost a quarter century as a court specialist before she became circuit clerk. Sylvester Anton retired mid-term in the 1990s from the circuit clerk’s position, which opened the way for Thompson, the chief deputy clerk at that time, to be appointed to the position. She was elected a couple more times to the office after that.

Thompson, did not run for re-election in 2006, citing health problems. At the time of her retirement, she had been a widow for a couple of years. She was married for 31 years to the late William W. Thompson and had two sons, Burt Julian and Freddy Julian. She was a member of Edgil Grove Baptist Church.

Guthrie said one reason he got along with her was that he also farmed, and her husband also farmed, and the two men knew each other before Guthrie was elected.

Her retirement opened the way for Odom to be elected to the position that year. Jan. 15, 2007, was her last day as circuit clerk.

Thompson was made a deputy clerk in 1982, and Brotherton appointed her to fill an unexpired term on Aug. 1, 1992. She was elected in her own right in 1994 and re-elected in 2001. By her retirement she had enough time to serve as a supernumerary circuit clerk as a means of drawing retirement pay.

As she was about to retire at age 72, Thompson recalled in a January 2007 interview when she started out as a clerk in the Circuit Clerk’s Office in 1968.

“There were two of us,” she said. “Now, there are eight of us, and it’s not enough,” Thompson said — adding the office needed about 12 to keep up with the workload.

“I’ve tried to do a very good job for them because I came from a strong job-ethics family. That’s all we knew to do,” she said. “I appreciate my parents but most of all my creator for giving me the talent and the knowledge to be able to do this job, and to the people of Walker County for allowing me to do it.”

She said she is “tired” after 38 years of various positions in the office.

“It was time for me to go home,” she said. “I’m going to stay up there in the country. I love it. It was my mom and dad’s old homeplace during the Depression.”

Thompson grew up near Parrish and attended Central Elementary and Walker County High in Jasper. She eventually worked at Deep South Creamery for 10 years and then started at the Circuit Clerk’s Office on April 1, 1968.

Not only was the office smaller in those days, but it was also hotter. Air conditioning was not yet installed.

“I vividly remember employees in the clerk’s office working one-handed, because our other hand was occupied with a hand fan most likely borrowed from the grateful owner’s church. Our typing speed was a little slower on hot days,” she said.

Making multiple copies of court documents was also time-consuming in the pre-copier days. Copy stencils were made using a manual typewriters (which were already considered antiques) and then placed on a hand-turned mimeograph machine.

“Years later we got our first copy machine. It was so loud when in operation, another employee and I had to yell at each other to be heard over the noise. You could hardly conduct business at the counter or over the phone,” Thompson said.

She also recalled daily climbing “a beautiful” two-flight marble staircase to the clerk’s office for many years. It was replaced during the renovations after the April 1974 tornado that damaged the structure.

The tornado was one of the biggest disruptions she experienced in the office, as it and other county offices had to be moved to Sherer Auditorium “for quite some time,” she said. The concession area served as the counter area to deal with the public.

Back at the courthouse, bricks from nearby buildings were found on her desk. Dump trucks were parked outside courthouse windows, propped with slides to send down record books from the windows. Many of the records were taken as far away as Parrish.

“Oh, this thing was eerie,” she said. “Some of the blinds were still hanging, and the wind was blowing in with windows out. It was something else. But we came up mostly to get the money. It was still intact.”

One of her duties over the years was to deal with jurors. Once she overheard an experienced juror listening to a new juror express deep concern over whether he could adequately do the job.

“Don’t worry. This is real simple,” the experienced juror said. “All you do is stand in the hallway for three hours until they tell you the case has been settled. I think you can do it.”

Another man wanted to be excused, saying his presence was essential to his job. Thompson asked if someone else could fill in for him.

“He paused a moment and said, ‘Yes, but I don’t want my boss to know that.’”

One lady was “thrilled to death” at getting a jury summons. Thompson told her most people don’t usually get excited about it.

“Most people don’t have five kids under school age, either,” she shot back.

“I don’t know how many juries I’ve struck over the years,” Thompson said. “I used to have to take them to eat, but I got relieved of that (by sheriff deputies). I’d load them up in the van and here I’d go. It was usually at a place like Victoria’s. I’d have to make arrangements beforehand so I could keep them away from the public. If one got up to go to the bathroom, I’d have to go with them. I didn’t like that too well.”

One goal while in office was to explain the duties — a challenge due to the complexity and broad range of the office. She noted it also demands a lot of time at all hours: Even just after knee replacement, she would have to travel and have someone come to the car for her to sign papers.

The work involves keeping court records, preparing complaints to determine probable cause for issuing warrants, setting bonds on all warrants, collecting fines, creating and managing jury lists and issuing passports. Thompson read verdicts to the judges at the close of trials.

“The clerk’s office is truly the hub of the activities in the judicial circuit,” she said.

Reporting and maintaining records of all the funds collected through the court system takes up a large amount of the office’s time. In 2007 she said a total of 38 reports were filed each month with the state comptroller, and the state audited the records every two years.

She said the most difficult part of the job is dealing with people who have problems. Some “don’t have anywhere to go” but the circuit clerk with problems with children or domestic violence.

“You’ll have people in here at the same time wanting warrants against each other. That’s not good,” she said. “I guess the warrant part is one of the worst parts of the job.”

Some also are difficult with the clerks, such as when they haven’t met all the requirements for a warrant.

“They get aggravated about that. We get the brunt of that, but you just have to grin and go on,” she said.

Technological advancements helped during her years with the paperwork, such as the ability to e-mail dockets to attorneys without having to make multiple paper copies.

During her tenure the office was linked with the Administrative Office of Courts in Montgomery by computer.

E

-filing of cases will soon start so that all the paperwork will be filed without paper.

Visitation will be held on Saturday at Kilgore-Green from noon to 2 p.m., with services to follow at the funeral home at 2 p.m. Burial will follow at Walker Memory Gardens.