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Life Stories: Joan Terry, efficient Orange County clerk, friend to many

Many lawyers would say their responsibilities pale in comparison to those of a North Carolina court clerk. In addition to keeping all clerical records for daily dockets of as many as 600 cases and handling all court fees, clerks also act as judge of probate, handling the wills, estates, appointing personal representatives, and presiding over adoptions and foreclosures.

And the clerk’s mood, capabilities and personality can make or break a courtroom experience.

Those who worked in the Orange County courthouse during recent decades remain grateful to Joan Terry, who worked in the clerk’s office for nearly 30 years, with her last years there spent as the elected clerk of Superior Court. Though she retired more than 10 years ago because of the progress of her Parkinson’s disease, those attorneys and judges who worked with her still consider themselves her “court children.”

“Joan raised many of us in the courtrooms and courthouse and did it with an unfailing cheerful, helpful and positive spirit,” Chief District Court Judge Joseph Buckner wrote in the wake of her death.

Terry, 66, died from a Parkinson’s-related fall at her daughter’s home in Cedar Grove. In the years since she retired as clerk, she had focused on church, her grandchildren and advocating for the needs of people with Parkinson’s. Some people of her acquaintance did not know she had served as clerk of Orange County until her death.

Hailed from Hurdle Mills

Terry was born in Durham and raised in the rural area surrounding the Hurdle Mills community in Person County. She married straight out of high school and soon gave birth to her only child, daughter Frances “Hootie” Loftis.

Terry was 25 when she first began working at the Orange County Courthouse. Though she had not attended college (nowadays many clerks have law degrees), she proved a quick learner and strong asset to the clerk’s office from the start. She was petite, not much more than 5 feet tall, and had a signature quick walk, bustling around the courts in a blaze of determined energy.

Her sharp intellect, infallible memory, and remarkable efficiency made her a valued member of the courthouse. But what was most appreciated about Terry was her way with people.

“One of the things they don’t teach you in law school – but you learn in a hurry – is that the court system works and runs only because of the people who work in the clerk’s office,” longtime Chapel Hill attorney Bob Epting said. “The clerk can be, especially to a new lawyer, the most helpful person in your practice. You find out in a hurry who the angels are. They are the people who act, I can say now in hindsight, like Joan Terry.”

Buckner points out that the public often interacts most with the clerk’s staff at the courthouse, more than with judges and attorneys. Terry was always a soothing force, regardless of your crime or collar. She could diffuse tense situations easily, and she was known to occasionally spot court fees to folks she knew if they came up short with cash.

“She just had that art of self where she just knew what every person in any situation needed,” Buckner said.

Aided others with Parkinson’s

Terry was in her 40s when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Though she was living with her daughter, she remained fiercely independent until the end and kept a busy schedule that was made possible by her close-knit family. Her people had farmed that area of Person and Orange counties for more than five generations, her daughter said, and they were proud to take care of her – just as Terry had taken care of various family members over the years.

Terry was happy to remain rooted in her provincial life, and she had a secret fear of downtown Chapel Hill – it was too “big city” for her. She attended a Parkinson’s Support Group in Chapel Hill at first, but when she realized there was a need for such a group closer to home, she established the Parkinson’s Support Group that meets at the Orange County Senior Center.

“She was an advocate for Parkinson’s research. She did all kinds of studies, all kinds of trials,” Loftis said.

She ‘gave of herself’

When Terry first ran for clerk of Superior Court in 1994, she beat out a handful of opponents. The next election cycle she ran unopposed. She only retired in 2001 because she knew her illness was going to compromise her work.

For people such as emergency District Court Judge Pat DeVine, who first met Terry as a “baby lawyer” before taking the bench, working with people like Joan made her days, often wrought with the sad stories our society has to tell, far brighter.

“I remembered most of all her joy. She radiated it,” DeVine said. “I trusted her utterly. She helped me know each day I’d be OK. I was OK. We loved each other.”

“Some of us serve, and some of us give of ourselves. Joan gave of herself all the time,” Buckner said.

Joan Dezern Terry

BORN: May 10, 1948, in Durham.

FAMILY: Married Joseph Terry in 1966, and was widowed in 2006. One daughter, Frances “Hootie” Loftis. Two grandchildren.

EDUCATION: Graduated from Orange High School in 1966, then completed a few clerical courses at a community college.

CAREER: Began working for the Orange County Courthouse in 1973 and was elected clerk of Superior Court in 1994. She retired in 2001 due to the progression of her Parkinson’s disease.

DIED: Feb. 5 in Cedar Grove.

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