Over 36 years, the people of Johnston County elected Will Crocker their clerk of court at every possible opportunity.
Last week, as Crocker served his last few days in office, he said he could not have done the job without God, his wife and his staff.
The longtime clerk of court announced last year that he would not seek reelection. His tenure ended Dec. 1 when his successor, Michelle Ball, took the oath of office.
In 1959, Crocker was studying at East Carolina University and working weekends at a car wash when he heard that the Town of Selma needed a clerk. He took that job and has been in public service ever since.
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He was sworn in as Johnston’s clerk in 1977, after 10 years as assistant clerk. He said he still remembers his first day.
“I took my oath of office – I really knew something about it, because I had been there for 10 years,” he said.
Over time, Crocker watched the clerk’s office change and grow. The office has always been a liaison between lawyers, judges and the people. That means a lot of paperwork, including correspondence. Before technology forever altered the workplace, Crocker said, his employees had to be handy with a typewriter and skilled in shorthand. Today, most everything goes online via computer.
The office had about 15 staff members when Crocker started. It now has 42.
“The clerk’s office is given employees based on caseload,” Crocker noted. “Johnston is in the top 25.”
One of the longest-serving staff members is Pam Ryals, who joined the office in 1984. She said Crocker has been a great teacher.
Ryals recalled the framed newspaper article from years ago with the headline “The Will of the People.”
“That’s truly him,” she said. “He has served the public well.”
Crocker might have retired as clerk, but he says he’ll still be a regular at fire department barbecues and in Christmas parades. Also, he has no plans to stop working and is weighing a few job offers.
Ultimately, whatever he does will involve helping people, Crocker said. “The Lord has blessed me with good health,” he said. “I enjoy the law. I enjoy helping other people.”
He also wants to make sure the transition from his tenure to Ball’s is a smooth one. He invited her to his office the day after the election, and she’s been visiting every other day since then.
“I think she is a fine girl – very well qualified,” Crocker said. “I think she’ll make a great clerk.”
Smithfield lawyer Bob Spence Jr. said Crocker always took the time to understand each and every person who came through his door.
“He is a clerk who is ultimately concerned with the welfare of the people in front of him,” Spence said. “Wanting to do a fair and beneficial job as possible, he does that by trying to understand who they are and their backgrounds and needs.
“I have certainly grown as a lawyer just trying to see what Will Crocker sees.”
Crocker also appreciated – and accepted – the responsibility that comes with managing the huge sums of money that flow through the clerk’s office, said Spence, whose law firm employed Ball for 22 years.
“If you’re clerk, you manage an immense amount of money,” he said. “It’s someone else’s money, so you have to be sure that money is applied properly,. You have not heard scandals about misapplications of funds in Will Crocker’s clerk’s office.”
Chief District Court Judge Andy Corbett, who is also retiring this year, said he and Crocker have been working closely together since 1969, when he was a young lawyer and Crocker was assistant Clerk. Though the two didn’t always agree on everything, Corbett said he always found Crocker to be reasonable, accessible and helpful.
“He will leave the legacy of a clerk’s office well run, fair, impartial, man of the people,” Corbett said. “His legacy will live on way beyond when he leaves office.”
Smithfield attorney Jack O’Hale said the clerk’s office under Crocker is the most accessible one in the state. When you call, a human being answers, not a recording.
“North Carolina is going to lose its finest clerk when Will Crocker retires,” O’Hale said. “He really is the Will of the people, because he’s the people’s clerk.”
O’Hale said he has been in court everywhere from Florida to New York, from North Carolina to New Mexico, and Crocker is the finest clerk he has seen anywhere.
“His footprint on the legal history of Johnston County will be just as significant as any judge who ever presided in court here or any lawyer who has had the privilege to practice law in Johnston County.” O’Hale said. “He has been an inspiration to everyone in the legal profession. There will never be another one like him.”
Crocker attributes much his successes to a loyal and diligent staff. “Any man who holds office is just as good as the people he hires,” he said. “The clerk can’t do it by themselves.”
Crocker said he hopes to be remembered as a diligent public servant.
“Other than my wife and the Lord, this is the thing I love the best,” he said.