Things were a lot different in 1957.
John F. Kennedy had not yet been elected president, Neil Armstrong had not set foot on the moon and the average American gave no thought to distant places like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gas was cheap, TV choices were few, offices featured manual typewriters and Phyllis Staley began working in the public service field in Texas County, Mo.
As a 17-year-old Houston High School graduate in the spring of ’57, Staley stepped right out of the classroom and into the courthouse building as an assistant in the circuit clerk’s office. At the end of this year – an amazing 53 years later – the life-long Houston resident will walk away from her life’s work as a public servant.
“When I started, I never intended to be here this long,” Staley said. “But it has been very interesting the whole way through and there has never been a dull moment.”
Staley was a circuit clerk assistant for a total of 39 years, working under Roy Gentry for 21 years and Wilmer Diedrich for another 18. Having completed almost four decades worth of experience, she then ran for office herself and spent the past 14 years as Texas County circuit clerk and ex-officio recorder of deeds.
The likelihood exists that Staley will be the last person to hold both of those offices here; the state combined them about 70 years ago, but they will split again this year.
“I’m sure they were combined for financial reasons,” she said. “But both offices have become much, much busier.”
She had hoped to stay on as the county’s recorder of deeds, but in November Staley became one of countless Democrats around the country to fall victim to a sweeping Republican landslide and was defeated by Susan Warkentin in a tight race for that office. Republican Marci Mosley will succeed Staley as circuit clerk.
Describing exactly what her daily tasks have involved all these years is something Staley said would be difficult to do, but included were dealing with many aspects of circuit court cases and overseeing the orientation and implementation of jurors.
“As far as all the duties are concerned, I don’t think a page in the newspaper could hold it,” she said.
For the past 47 years, Staley has been married to James, who worked for 42 years as a parts manager for the Ford and Chrysler dealership that used to operate in Licking. The couple has one son, also named James.
The length of her stint in the judicial field means Staley has seen many a judge come and go and dealt with dozens of cases of all imaginable types (civil, criminal, paternity, juvenile and more). But as she put it, documenting all the changes that took place from the beginning to the end of her career “would require a book.”
“It’s as different as day and night,” Staley said. “Things just progressed through the years; some has been good and some hasn’t.”
Obviously, many technological improvements have come along since 1957. Staley recalls working in the old courthouse building before it had air conditioning.
“And it seemed like summers were hotter back then,” she said. “I remember the windows being left open and they didn’t have screens. The wasps pretty much had free range; you really had to watch out for them.”
Changes in society and subsequent behavioral patterns led to some of the more noticeable changes in Staley’s daily tasks. Divorces went from almost nonexistent to commonplace, as did cases involving minors.
“There didn’t even used to be a juvenile officer,” she said. “The prosecuting attorney took care of the juveniles. It went from no juvenile officer to a juvenile officer with four or five employees.”
Not surprisingly, the entire roster of county courthouse officials has changed over the years.
“There isn’t an official left in the courthouse now who was here when I started,” she said. “It even boggles my own mind that I’ve been here 53 years.
“When I look back, it has gone by really fast. But these are two very busy offices and you don’t have time to think about much.”
Changes and time passages notwithstanding, Staley points to one aspect of the job that kept her at it for more than five decades.
“Working with the people,” she said. “I enjoy working with the judges and the attorneys and I love working with the public. And I feel like I have a good relationship with the people in Texas County.”
Staley got one of the biggest surprises of her career Dec. 2 in a Texas County courtroom. While she was beginning the orientation process in front of a large group of potential jurors, Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield made an unexpected entry and presented her a plaque for her years of service.
The moment brought tears to the recipient’s eyes and spurred a lasting ovation from the crowd.
Staley was honored again the next day in Rolla at a semi-annual meeting of circuit and associate judges and court personnel. This time, she received a letter of commendation from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon; the letter was presented by Presiding Judge Sheffield, who also presented her the plaque again in front of the crowd of peers.
A standing ovation resulted.
Unlike many offices in the same field where changing faces is the norm, employee turnover was not an issue for Staley during her time in office. Staff members Rita Williams, Bettie Horton, Pat Miller and Dollie Hamilton stayed on the whole way, while Ann Vandiver retired midway through.
“I’m proud of the people who worked for me during the years I held office,” she said. “They are to be commended for the job they have done for me and the public.”
Not going to work on a daily basis for the first time in half a century is going to put Staley in the unfamiliar position of having lots of discretionary time.
“I have been so busy in these offices that I really haven’t thought about what I’m going to do next,” she said. “But there are many trips I would like to have taken in the past and haven’t been able to because of work. Now I guess I intend to rest and travel.”
As might be expected from anyone leaving a work situation they’ve been a part of for 53 years, Staley will be moving on with a boatload of memories and mixed feelings.
“I have so many stories to tell,” she said. “There are probably a couple of books in me if I could remember everything. But it has been a joy and pleasure to serve the people of Texas County.
“Retiring is bittersweet.”