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No small milestone

John W. Small marks 50 years in county clerk's office today

John W. Small marks 50 years in county clerk's office today

January 02, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - John W. Small Jr. never has resided more than a mile from the historic Berkeley County Courthouse, where he has worked for 50 years - 35 and counting as county clerk.

After being appointed in September 1971 to complete the six-year term of the late Eugene C. Dunham, Small was elected three years later in his own right. Voters in five consecutive elections since have returned the Martinsburg native to office, trusting him to oversee the recording of deeds of trusts, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, the registration of voters and staging of fair elections, among other duties.

"I try to treat everybody the same and fair," said Small, who will be 77 when his current term ends in 2010.

Whether Small decides to seek re-election "all depends on my health and the man upstairs."

Born July 24, 1933, at home at 806 Virginia Ave., John W. Small Jr. was the youngest of four children and the only son of John Warrington Small Sr. and Vannie Michael.

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Small's father was a Jefferson County Democrat, a carpenter who helped build Martinsburg High School, then worked as a custodian there when the South Queen Street building opened. His mother was a Morgan County Republican, who met her future husband in Martinsburg after coming to Berkeley County to work at the Interwoven Mills complex, Small said.

Though not a politically active family, Small said last week that his mother and father engaged in some friendly banter on Election Day when he was a youngster.

"He'd tell her he was going to the polls, she'd tell him she was going later to kill his vote," said Small, a Republican.

Small said he didn't aspire to be part of the political process when Dunham asked him to be his chief deputy clerk in 1956, but the job represented an opportunity to better himself and his mother. His father's death while he was in high school prompted Small to drop out and get a job to support the family.

His first job at age "15 and a half" was at Warner Bros. State Theater in downtown Martinsburg. He was paid 40 cents an hour.

After six years and being promoted to a management post, Small went to work for People's Drug store.

Little more than a year into the counter job, Small was hired by Dunham as his chief deputy clerk on a recommendation by his former high school shop teacher-turned-attorney, Luke E. Terry.

Small was 23 when he was sworn in Dec. 14, 1956. But outgoing County Clerk Harold Keedy didn't allow him to "get his feet wet," and he didn't start working at the courthouse at 100 W. King St. until Dunham took office Jan. 2, 1957. The position came with a $1,800 salary.

"I started out helping Mr. Dunham keep the books," Small said. That meant tracking the county's payment of courthouse and jail bills, among other operational expenses.

"It was an education," Small said of his on-the-job learning experience. "I probably learned more here than I did in high school."

At that time, the clerk's office was staffed with seven people, and virtually every other elected county officer had an office in the courthouse. The West Virginia State Police, Berkeley County health officer and U.S. military recruiters also were there, Small said.

All of the other county and state offices since have left the courthouse, and his office is expected to join other county departments at the Dunn Building off West Stephen Street in a few years.

While working under Dunham, Small said he was offered a number of other jobs, but loyalty won out.

"One of the banks was after me to come work for them ... but I stuck with Mr. Dunham," Small said.

Small remained true to a fellow Republican "from the old school" who routinely came to work wearing white, long-sleeved, collared shirts beneath three-piece suits.

"I never did get him persuaded to wear short-sleeve," Small said.

Small remembers the last day he worked with Dunham. It was Friday, Sept. 17, 1971.

Before leaving the courthouse to walk home, Small said Dunham told him he was thinking about taking Monday off because the affairs of the office were in order.

"You can look after things," Small remembered Dunham saying only a few hours before he died at his house after eating dinner.

As chief deputy, one of Small's responsibilities was to "act in the county clerk's stead," but Dunham rarely was absent, Small said.

Within a week, Small was appointed to serve out the remaining years of Dunham's term, which ended in 1974.

"I had no idea I'd be here 50 years," Small said of his tenure. "I just like, you might say, helping people."

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