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Jeff Whitten: In praise of 41 years of service
editor's notes

When I first heard longtime County Clerk Donna Waters was retiring after 41 years of working for the residents of Bryan County, I shot County Administrator Ben Taylor an email asking him for a quote.

He sent one, then followed up with another telling me to make sure I “write her up a good article.”

Naturally, it didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped. For starters, not long after that exchange the county provided its own press release announcing her retirement and it was so well done I decided to run it and reassess how I’d “write her up” that story.

Hence, here we are on the opinion page where I can offer up my two cents on Waters and hope I don’t embarrass her.

I’ll start with this.

In my dealings with her, Waters was always helpful and professional and reliable and above all else honest – a public servant in the best sense of the word, in my humble opinion. Those don’t always grow on trees, you know, though they’re far more plentiful than some think.

What’s more, lest you think public service is easy, it isn’t. It probably never was, but I suspect it’s increasingly difficult, what with expectations and social media and a public which already knows all the answers, or thinks it does. Or some people think so, anyway. Sometimes it reminds me of the old Linus quote, courtesy Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schultz: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand,” but that’s a different story.

Still, I can recall a county clerk in another county, a sweet, kindly, grandmotherly sort of woman who told me off record back in 1996 or thereabouts when I did a retirement story on her that she’d had all she could take of the public. Donna, who served the public hereabouts for more than four decades, never once said that to me, by the way. Not even when I told her that story.

In reality, she’s hardly said much to me at all over the 14 years I’ve been attached to this newspaper. But she was scrupulous to make sure we got notice of meetings and workbooks providing the information we needed – it wasn’t her fault if we reporters screwed up stories. And if you needed something relating to county commission business, she’d get it for you.

And then, a couple weeks back, Waters sent an email announcing her retirement and ended it with this sentence, which I hope she doesn’t mind my sharing: “It has been a pleasure working with you over the years.”

Rumpled, fat and old weekly newspaper editors do not get told that sort of thing very often, so excuse this one if he basks for a moment.

But anyhow. When I first heard Waters was retiring, I piled up a list of questions and sent them to her via email. She was gracious enough to respond. The questions are in italics. Her answers follow.

Background stuff: Are you from Bryan? (I always assumed so)? Married? Kids, grandkids, etc. Education? Church? Anything you want to share about yourself and your family. Feel free to name names).

With the exception of 3 years, I have lived my entire life in the Black Creek/Ellabell community. I am married to James “Skip” Waters. I have two daughters, Kristi Sikes and Kandi Brown. I have three grandchildren, Skyler Merchant who is 17 years old, Natalie Sikes, who is 7 years old and Evan Sikes who is 5 years old. I graduated with honors from Bryan County High School. I have received the following certifications: County Clerk Certification in 1994, Finance Officers Certification in 1997, Certified County Official in 2003 and Advanced Education Management Development Program Certification in 2004. I am a lifelong member of the Ellabell United Methodist Church.

What was your first job with the county?

My first job with the County was Accounts Payable/Payroll Clerk.

When did you take over as county clerk?

I was appointed County Clerk on January 1, 1993

You’re the longest serving employee the county has ever had. Will that ever sink in?

I don’t think this will ever sink in. I don’t really think about being the longest serving employee with the county. We have had other employees to work part time after retirement, so they had more combined years of service than I do. I am the longest serving employee to have continuous full time employment with 41 years, 8 months and 1 week.

What makes a good county clerk?

I think a good county clerk is someone that is honest, professional, dedicated and listens to what others have to say.

What was the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is working with others and serving the citizens of this beautiful county we live in.

What was the worst part of your job?

I don’t particularly care for having the responsibility of the Open Records Clerk. I know this is an important function and necessary, I just wished it was assigned to someone else.

What will you miss most?

I will miss the people I work with and I will miss attending the Commission meetings.

What will you do next?

I plan to travel. My bucket list is to visit all 50 states and I have only 8 left on this list that I have not visited. I plan to do some camping with my husband and with family. I also plan to spend time with my family and especially my grandchildren.

Any favorite county officials you’ve worked with over the years?

It would really be hard to name a favorite county official. I have worked with so many wonderful Commissioners. A few of these are Carlton Gill, Warren Miller, Al Dixon, Brooks Warnell, Toby Roberts, Jimmy Burnsed; there are really just too many to name because they have all been so good to me over the years.

Have you ever been prompted to smack someone upside the head (or anywhere else) at a county commission meeting?

I have never really wanted to smack someone, but I have definitely wanted to tell some people they really need to sit down because if they could only hear themselves speaking they would probably be embarrassed.

Who were your role models?

Jetta Foxworth Strickland was the best role model I could have ever asked for. She was the County Clerk that hired me, inspired me and gave me the background I needed to become a successful County Clerk.

Any advice to your successor? Do you know who that’ll be?

My advice to my successor is to do your best, give 100%, take time to listen to what others have to say, always be honest, professional, reliable and be true to yourself.

Lori Tyson was appointed Interim Deputy Clerk, and I think she will do a great job as my successor.

So there you have it. A career in local government that began around the same time President Ronald Reagan was elected and K.C. and the Sunshine Band were making hits and Dallas was a hit show on TV – and Bryan County had a population of about 10,000 people, less than go into Kroger on a single Saturday morning, probably, these days – came to an end in January.

This column and last week’s story may not be that much of a summing up when you look at someone giving 40 years of their life to a job and a county and it’s people, but it’s what we’ve got at the moment.

As for what Taylor told me a couple weeks ago, here it is: “Bryan County has been lucky to have Donna Waters.”

Actually, he said more than that, but I thought that first sentence summed it up pretty nicely. Bryan County has been lucky.

Enjoy your retirement, m’am. And thanks.

Whitten is editor of the Bryan County News.

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