After 35 Years on the Job, Hartford Town Clerk Beth Hill Passes the Torch

  • Town Clerk Beth Hill sits near her desk with flowers that were given to her during her last day of work in Hartford, Vt., on March 30, 2018. Hill is retiring after working decades in the town clerk's office and will be replaced by Lisa O'Neil. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Town Clerk Beth Hill responds to an email during her last day of work in Hartford, Vt., March 30, 2018. Hill, who has spent her whole life in Hartford, has served a total of 35 years in the town clerk's office and can recognize nearly everyone who walks through the door. "My grandkids do not like to go shopping with me because I run into too many people to talk to," Hill said. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Town Clerk Beth Hill, talks with her nephew Kevin Mock, of Hartford, Vt., during her last day of work at the town clerk's office in Hartford on March 30, 2018. Mock was in the area and stopped by the office to chat. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hartford — When the man walked into the Town Clerk’s Office on Friday morning, he shot a pointed look at Beth Hill as he spoke, but his tone was teasing.

“Don’t you just love it, Lisa,” he said, speaking to recently appointed Town Clerk Lisa O’Neil, “when the old regime tries to stay around and keep bothering you with stuff?”

Hill raised her eyebrows as she looked back at him, amused.

“How you doing, Beth?” he asked.

They smiled at each other.

“Good,” she replied, greeting him by name. “How are you?”

It was a small exchange of a tenor and type that felt familiar to Hill on what was, for her, a momentous day: After 35 years of serving in the Town Clerk’s Office, including winning eight consecutive elections unopposed (she appeared on the ballot as Mary “Beth” Hill), she was spending her last few hours as an employee of the town of Hartford.

“It’s been kind of special,” Hill said, “to be able to serve the town that you grew up in and have deep roots to.”

Since being hired on a part-time basis as assistant town clerk in 1983, Hill has shepherded the office through an enormous change — when she began, everything from marriage licenses to quit claim deeds was logged arduously by hand and filed away in cluttered cabinets and registry books.

Back then, the Town Hall, which underwent a major renovation a few years ago, was a much less pleasant work environment.

“Bats everywhere. And mice,” Hill remembered. “A lot of mice. ... It was not unusual to walk out of the office and see a bat flying across the hall. Or walk into the bathroom and look up and there’s a bat hanging from the ceiling.”

The floor of the office also was a cause for concern in those days.

“There were places in the floor where if you stood, you felt like you were going to go right down through the carpet,” she said. “And actually, when they tore it apart, there was a chance that you could have.”

Hill knows a customer is approaching before they even walk in the door, because she’s trained her ear to the squeak of the floorboards outside. And the floorboards were squeaking a lot on Friday, as a parade of people who stopped in to wish her well.

Longtime Hartford Selectman Dick Grassi entered the office, moving immediately to bend down and give her a big hug, smiling as he spoke a few warm words into her ear. Everyone seemed to have something nice to say. Hill’s daughter sent her flowers, while Assistant Town Clerk Sherry West bought her a cake.

Hill, 68, was born and raised in Hartford, and occasionally comes across historical records in the town archives that pertain to her great grandfather. She said the town, too, was different when she started in the early 1980s. There was more farmland, and fewer people and buildings.

Something else has changed over the past 35 years.

Hill herself.

When she started the post, she tried to maintain the unflappable calm that she is now known for, but it was hard for her to be the verbal target of an irate taxpayer standing at the counter.

“It would bother me,” she said.

Over the years, Hill said, she grew more confident in her decisions and more understanding of the grumpier members of the public.

“They’re not upset at you,” she said. “The town clerk happens to be the person standing in front of them, so you kind of get the brunt of it. ... (But) you know you can’t do it, and it’s not your fault.”

Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar said Hill demonstrates mastery of her job, and called her “the epitome of a public servant. She has come to the Town Hall for over 25 years with the sole purpose of serving. She did it with a smile on her face and was always willing to listen to folks.”

A self-described homebody with an appetite for police procedural detective novels and television shows, Hill said the relationships she developed with Hartford residents helped to connect her to the community.

“It’s made me, I don’t know how to put it,” she said, pausing to think. “Maybe more outgoing? And learned a lot about people. Because you meet different people every day.”

For a town clerk, no two days are alike, but Hill’s learned to identify the rhythm of public needs that are only loosely related to the progression of spring, summer, fall and winter outside the office window. Inside, Hill has presided over election season, which is followed by dog license season (things get heavy when the town starts reaching out to expired license holders), which is even now yielding to a spring-inspired marriage license season.

And the office is no longer host to rodents or worrisome weak spots in the floor. The renovated office space is clean, bright and professional looking. Optical scanning systems have replaced the old cantankerous election machines. And every time a page of a document is entered into the formal record, $4 of the $10 fee is set aside to fund the restoration and digitization of documents, a drive that allows images of land-deed records from the 1800s to join yesterday’s dog license in a modern computing system.

Hill, whose annual salary was $67,389 last year, also leaves with the distinction of being the last town clerk Hartford voters have elected — the Town Charter recently was amended so that O’Neil and future clerks will instead be appointed by the Selectboard.

“Town clerks have been elected in Hartford for a long time and I’m the last one to be elected,” Hill said.

“Beth was comfortable with the technology. And her smile when you come in the office is just wonderful,” friend and longtime Hartford resident Lynn Bohi said during a Friday phone interview. Bohi said that, when she served as a state representative, she often had cause to bring Hill a stack of new voter registration forms, each of which set off a cascade of tasks for Hill before they could be approved.

When Bohi heard that Hill planned to retire, she stopped in to chat and offer tips on maintaining social ties into retirement — perhaps a book club, she advised.

Hill said she’s looking forward to sleeping in a little later in the morning, spending time with her grandchildren and casting election day votes without having to stay at the polls into the night to manage the balloting process.

Hill said she would feel comfortable walking out the door at the end of her last day of the job on Friday afternoon, in part because over the last month, she’s gained confidence in O’Neil’s ability to succeed as the next town clerk.

“A lot of people know Lisa,” Hill said. “She grew up in this town just like I did. It’s a nice feeling to have the next town clerk also be a longtime town resident.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.