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Front Page - Friday, March 7, 2014

Hillyer bids County work farewell after more than 35 years

At the end of office hours on Friday, March 7, Chief Deputy Clerk & Master Judy Hillyer will shut down her computer, turn off her light, and close and lock her door for the last time after more than 35 years of service to Hamilton County. She says the decision to retire after working for three clerk & masters and five chancellors since 1978 was easy.

“When I reached 63, I thought, ‘Why not?’” she says. “I had a heart attack eight years ago, and while I’ve been fine ever since, you never know about health issues. Plus, I have an 83-year-old mother in Alabama, and I want to spend more time with her, my two kids, and my four grandchildren.”

Although Hillyer doesn’t seem emotional about her decision to leave, she will miss her co-workers. “This office is family-oriented,” she says. “We hold a lot of fundraisers, we dress up for Halloween, and we have Christmas parties with our spouses, and summer parties with the law clerks, and grandma showers.

“I’m going to miss those things, and I’m going to miss the people I have come to know and love. We have fun together and we enjoy each other, but we’re still professional and we get the job done. No tears, though. I’m fine with leaving. I’m ready to start a new chapter in my life.”

Hillyer grew up in Opelika, Ala., near Auburn University.  While there, she worked as the assistant treasurer in the office of the superintendent of the schools. When she and her husband, Lamar, later moved to his hometown of Chattanooga, Hillyer took a job as a real estate loan officer. It was too formal for her, so she looked for other opportunities.

“I saw an ad in the paper for an auditor for the county schools, so I walked from the bank to see Bill McGriff. That was a new venture for the county. He hired me because of my experience,” she says.

While Hillyer enjoyed working in the auditing office, she had her eye on the clerk & master’s office from the beginning. “This is where I wanted to be,” she says. “The people here were respected and had a good reputation, and they seemed glad to be here.”

In 1978, Bob Summer hired her to work under Clerk & Master Ron Derby. She’s been with the office ever since.

Hillyer makes her duties for the last 18 years, since Clerk & Master Lee Akers took over the office and made her chief deputy, sound run of the mill: As office administrator, she handles personnel matters, purchasing, accounting, and the budget. She’s spent most of her time on personnel matters. “Sometimes, that’s been a good thing; sometimes, it hasn’t been,” she says.

While Hillyer is going to miss her co-workers, she won’t mind leaving the difficult conversations she sometimes had to have with a staff member behind. But as she looks back, she’s confident she made the right decisions through the years. “I care about people, but I also believe in doing the right thing, and in doing what’s best for the office,” she says. “So, while I might not have liked those conversations, I didn’t have a problem with having them because they were necessary.”

The biggest challenge Hillyer faced in her three decades-plus career with the county, however, was moving the office to smaller quarters on Lindsay Street during the remediation of the county courthouse, and then moving back when the building was ready for them again. “Lee and I spent a year-and-a-half with architects designing the workstations and looking for a place to go,” she says. “We settled on Lindsay Street, which was about half the size of where we were. My husband and son even spent all night a couple of nights cutting workstations so we could fit six divisions and two courts into that space.”

While Hillyer’s job was stressful at times, at the end of more than 35 years, she says she wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else. “I enjoy this type of work, and this is where I wanted to do it,” she says. “I had no reason to go anywhere else. The County is a wonderful place to work.”

In addition to serving her County government, Hillyer has been active in her community through the years. She’s been on the executive board of the United Way for more than a decade, participated in Relays for Life for the American Cancer Society, and donated to Blood Assurance.

While those things will continue, Hillyer plans on doing something different with what used to be her office hours. “I want to have time to be casual and not be on a strict schedule,” she says. “My husband and I are going to go on trips, and he’s been encouraging me to take up golf. I bought some clubs years ago, but I had too much on my plate. Now I’ll have the time to learn.”

Hillyer says her husband, who beat her to retirement by three years, is looking forward to having her home. “We met at a sock hop in high school, and got married 45 years ago. We’ve been in love ever since.”

Hillyer’s colleagues are less than excited about her leaving, especially Akers, who was shocked when Hillyer told him she was retiring. After speaking with his wife, he decided to retire, too. He’ll be leaving in late August or early September.

Hillyer has many good things to say about the County’s long-serving clerk & master. “I worked under three clerk and masters, and they each had their own style,” she says. “But Lee gave me the chance to grow and to manage this office like I thought it should be managed. We’ve worked well together because we’re very similar: he’s compassionate and fair but firm. I can’t say how much I appreciate him. He’s a fine person.”

As Hillyer has worked her final days, she’s been hearing things like, “This place won’t be the same without you,” “What are we going to do without you?” and “No one will know what to do.” But those who have worked with her the longest know better. As with everything she’s done as chief deputy, the good of the office is her priority, so she’s leaving the office in good hands.

“We have six divisions, and six deputies, and they’ll be able to handle their divisions,” she says. “Plus, the lady I’m training to take my place is smart. She’s going to do what’s right for the office.”

As Hillyer turns out her light and closes her office door for the last time, more than 35 years of service will be boiled down to the three words she used to describe Akers: in everything Hillyer did, she strived to be compassionate and fair but firm.

It’s a good legacy to leave.