“It’s been a wonderful life,” Mary M. Johnson said, expressing her feelings about leaving a public position she has held for the past 18 years. On Jan. 6, she will turn over the office of Santa Rosa County Clerk of the Circuit Court to Don Spencer, who was elected to succeed her in August.
Realistically, 52 years would better describe Johnson’s contribution to public service, because she actually began working in the office under Court Clerk Ray Helms as a student as early as1960.
It’s easy to see why she refers to her involvement in the office as a “life.” And though her passion has been her work over the years, she did manage to fit in a husband, a daughter and a private life that she looks upon with pride and satisfaction.
Johnson and her brother William were brought up in a family setting in Ward Basin and were provided all the opportunities for an education that her parents, Clinton and Laura Moore, could furnish. She attended Harold School for her first eight years and received a basic education that even today she considers unparalleled in depth and intensity.
“Those first eight years were very important,” she said of the rural school’s teaching. “They were the years that basic core values were formed and relationships began to take shape. I’m sure that the education I got there was as good as I could have gotten anywhere else.”
After the eighth grade, she transferred to Milton High School, where she graduated in the class of 1961. By that time, she had already discovered how meaningful working in the clerk’s office was and set her course to one day experience the satisfaction of running it.
She didn’t have to go far to find a job after graduation. She worked for Clerk Ray Helms until he retired in 1972 and continued working for his successor, Gerald Barnes, until his retirement in 1992. After Barnes retired, she worked for the next clerk, Mike McLellan, until 1994.
That’s when she decided to take the plunge and get involved in managing the office. She was elected on her first try and was re-elected to the office through 2012.
Along the way, she married Tom Johnson and had a daughter, Lorinda, who has given her two “… marvelous, wonderful, magnificent” grandchildren. Now that she is retiring from her job, the grandchildren most likely will become the center of her life.A lot of changes have been made, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Johnson began her career as clerk. Much of the legal work was done by hand, and typewriters were a luxury.
Today the office is technology-sensitive. Computers have replaced the typewriters. If you bring an item to be recorded, the transaction can take place instantly, and your document can be carried back with you.
“We have printers that copy and scan and do much more that what we used to do by hand,” Johnson said. “There may be other computerized equipment models out there that are more advanced than we have, but ours is as modern, adequate and as up to date for our needs and what we have to do.”
On the night of the election that ended her terms in office, Johnson said a friend consoled her with a statement that brought everything into focus: “God has made a decision for you that you couldn’t make for yourself,” the friend said. “And it made sense.”
Johnson refused to allow the defeat to make a negative impact in her life.
“This job has been a blessing in my life,” she said. “I’ve loved working for the public, and I’m honored to have been elected for all the times that I have. And as far as the job goes, I have done the best I could. I’ve had one of the best groups of people to work with that anyone could wish for. Do we make mistakes? Of course we do. But when we do we try our best to straighten things out.”
Johnson has come to terms with her position in her family and in her life, and she said is completely at peace with herself. “I feel like serving the public is what I was destined to do,” she said. “But I just think it was my time to go.”
Johnson always has put the job ahead of most other things in her life, but not completely. “I’ve been very blessed to have the family I’ve got,” she said. She said she never has put any task above her family.
“I’m willing to help Don get started,” she said. “And I’ll do everything I can to help him. But he has a lot of experience and will do OK on his own. But having a trained staff will be an advantage as well.”
Johnson said she will have a great deal of time on her hands, time that has been dedicated to the public for the last 18 years. But there are a lot of things she has put off because of the job that she will now get involved in.
“Maybe I’ll have time to join some of the ladies’ groups,” she said. She already teaches a Sunday School class, and she looks forward to volunteer work.
“I’ll do a lot volunteering at my grandchildren’s school. I’m sure I will enjoy that.” She also is fond of playing games and solving puzzles. “And I’ll have time to get my house in order the way I want it,” she said.
It has not been easy supervising a staff of some 125 people, but Johnson is good at delegating authority. She said she has been fortunate to have efficient and dependable people staffing the various departments.
The Clerk of Courts department is the nerve center for most all other factions of county government, and it takes a special kind of personality to coordinate it all. But Johnson said she is confident she is leaving the department in good hands.