Circuit Clerk and Recorder Becki Strong retires, looks back on 43-year career
After more than four decades of work in the Ozark County Circuit Clerk and Recorder’s office, Gainesville resident Becki Strong has retired.
“I have loved working with the people and being able to help. I’ve had people come in and say, ‘I don’t know what to ask for.’ And you wouldn’t know what to ask for unless you’ve worked here. That’s what our jobs are really all about, helping,” she said. “I’ve also really enjoyed the people I’ve worked with in the court system.”
Becki was employed in the office for a total of 43 years with 15 years of her career served as deputy clerk and 28 as circuit clerk and recorder.
Finding home in Ozark County
Becki moved to Ozark County with her parents and brother in the 1960s when she was just a child.
“My parents [Carlton and Doris Ewbank] bought a small resort in Isabella in 1963. The lake was still new when we came, and the only people who had moved into the county in years were people like us who had moved to open up resorts on the lakes. A lot of them had already raised their families in whatever place they came from, but there were a few families with children like L.B. and Paula Cook. Bill [Cook] and his sister were just young then,” she recalled. “It was kind of hard and scary at first. We told our parents, ‘Please don’t make us to go to school. We don’t want to be here,’ but the whole community, they were just wonderful.”
Becki graduated from Gainesville High School in 1968 and continued her education at School of the Ozarks, now College of the Ozarks, near Branson, where she graduated in 1972 with a major in home economics and a minor in child development.
She married Larry “Dude” Strong the next year, in 1973.
Work with Family Services and the 24-hour child abuse hotline
Becki began her career at the Missouri welfare office, an office now named the Division of Family Services, a year after she was married, in 1974.
“I was in Eminence as a case worker to begin with, and then I transferred to the Springfield office in 1975. That was when the 24-hour child abuse hotline was put into effect, and I was on the service unit that was responsible for it,” she said.
Becki said the work with the child abuse hotline was difficult at times, but the state provided good training, and she relied on the skills she learned in college through her child development curriculum to aid her in her job.
“There were 14 of us in the unit, and each one of us had not only our work we were responsible for during the day, but we also each had a rotation of a 24-hour period that we could be called out at night to respond. We couldn’t go by ourselves. We had to have an officer with us after hours. There were parts of Springfield that after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we couldn’t go into without an officer.”
The workers also manned a service intake unit.
“They met people who came in and needed help. That was kind of the beginning of young moms with children needing support. They needed to go to work, but they had no childcare. So the state funding for daycare was being instituted,” she said. “I had one mom who was trying to work. She didn’t have a car. So she was depending upon the mass transit in Springfield, and she had a neighbor in her apartment building who would watch the children for her until she got home from work. You didn’t think about all those things back then…”
Although Becki said the work was rewarding, it was also time consuming and sometimes stressful. In 1976, Dude and Becki had their first child, Chris, and the challenges of the job amplified.
“It was especially difficult then. I went back to work when he was 6 weeks old,” she said. “And when he was 6 months old, we decided to move. We looked at buying a house up there, but we realized this was where we wanted to raise children. So in June ’76, we moved back home.”
Joining the staff at the Circuit Clerk and Recorder’s office
Becki and Dude easily settled back into life in Gainesville and had a second child, Karen.
In February 1979, Becki went to work for the Circuit Clerk and Recorder’s office as a deputy clerk. She worked 20 hours a week upstairs in the division II circuit clerk’s office and spent the other 20 hours downstairs doing the recorder’s work in the division I office.
“That was shortly after the structure of the court system changed. Before that, division II [court] was considered the magistrate court, but of course, it was still where cases started,” she explained. “And then as the charges went on to be felonies, if they were bound over, they came into the circuit court.”
Becki says she remembers beginning her work in the office with Associate Judge Clyde Rogers who was serving in the position that had changed from magistrate judge to associate judge just before she was hired.
“He said he thought it was pretty funny that all of the sudden one day, the judges that had been magistrate judges, well now they could sit on circuit court cases… that all the sudden they were smart enough to hear circuit level cases,” she recalled, laughing.
Becki said she really enjoyed her time working with Judge Rogers and her other co-workers at the time.
“Barbara Stevens was the deputy clerk upstairs, and Lisa Hannaford was already working here too. Lisa was younger than I was. So I didn’t really know her as well as I did Barbara, but they were both wonderful to come to work with. And Judge Rogers had a knack of teaching. He’s the one who taught me how to look up state statues. Soon after I was hired, he made the comment that it would take a year to experience everything that could come up, and he was pretty much right. That first year I think we had five defendants charged with capital murder in three or four different cases,” she said.
A decision to run for office
After working in the office for more than a decade, Becki decided to file to run for the Circuit Clerk and Recorder’s position. Her decision came after Bill Hambelton, who had been in the position since she was hired, said that he planned to retire at the end of 1989; but just before filing, he had a change of heart and decided to run again.
“That was the year we slept in the hall because it was a big deal to be the first one on the ballot,” she said, explaining that the candidates were listed on the ballot in the order they were lined up in front of the clerk’s office during filing.
In the end, Becki and Hambelton both ran for the position, along with her co-worker Barbara Stevens and another candidate, Leroy Morrison. When the votes came in, Hambelton was able to hang onto the role, earning the majority of the ballots. Becki and Barbara both retained their employment under Hambelton for another term, and at the end of 1994, he officially retired.
Becki once again threw her name into the hat to run for the Circuit Clerk and Recorder position. Leroy Morrison, who had also ran four years prior, filed again, along with Stanley Chaney.
“The second time that I ran, I still had opposition. Back then everybody would go to the auctions on Saturday and campaign. That was the hardest part for me, the campaigning, because I’m not the type of person that comes easily to,” Becki said. “ And back then, we’d hit auction after auction. Pretty soon after that we realized that we were seeing the same people. So, then we’d hit the roads and go door-to-door.”
The campaigning paid off, and Becki took home more than 50 percent of the vote in the three-way race to claim the position.
She retained the title through the next six elections, facing opposition in only one, 2002, when Kenny Burnett filed to run against her, but she prevailed that year by a large margin.
Working with 10 different judges and a few particularly memorable moments
Becki has worked with many different judges in her tenure in the circuit clerk’s office.
She’s worked especially close with the Ozark County Associate Judges, whose offices are housed in the courthouse here. The associate judges she’s worked under include Clyde Rogers, Charlie Brown, John Jacobs, Cynthia MacPherson and currently presiding Associate Judge Raymond Gross.
She’s also worked with several circuit judges, who preside over multiple counties in the 44th district and hold trials and other hearings here multiple times a month but generally do not have a full-time office in Ozark County.
“Judge Crouch was circuit judge when I first started work, and at that time, the 44th circuit was five counties: Christian, Taney, Ozark, Douglas and Wright. They split Christian and Taney off because the population had increased so much in those areas,” Becki explained. “Bob House was an attorney in Ava, and when that happened, he was appointed for the 2-year term as circuit judge until the next General Election. Then Al Turner ran against him and won. He was an attorney out of Mountain Grove, and he and his brother owned Great Southern Savings. Judge [John] Moody came along after Judge Turner retired, and then Judge Craig Carter won the election and is now judge.”
Becki has seen just about anything that can come through a circuit clerk’s office in her 43 years; a number of cases stand out to her for different reasons, and she says there were also a few incidents that were particularly memorable because of the response of community members and the general public.
One instance she vividly remembers was when a group of bikers came to Gainesville in connection with a child abuse case filed here. The group actively advocated for children who were abused or mistreated.
“There were like 50 or 60 motorcyclists that rode into town and they positioned themselves all around the square and on the yard in the courthouse and down all the sidewalks,” Strong recalled. “It made me realize how easily a group of people could take over a small community if they wanted to. Especially if they were armed, and of course, there’s no reason they couldn’t have been. Some of them probably were.
“The judge called a couple of the leaders up and said ‘You have a wonderful organization, but this is way overkill. Maybe eight or 10 would have been sufficient to do what you wanted to do, to make the child feel protected and safe, but this is too much.’ They did good things. They went down on the weekends and spent time with the kids and took them fishing, trying to provide a positive male role model in their lives. But that day with the motorcycles here, that was something else.”
Becki recalls another time when there was a lot of animosity in the community toward a defendant. Before the defendant was brought to court, the area’s criminal task force responded to Gainesville and positioned armed officers on top of the buildings around the square. The court staff was also instructed to keep the blinds closed in case there were snipers who wished to harm the defendant.
Countless other interesting incidents have happened during her time there, she says, and she’s been thankful to have willing and supportive co-workers who have helped her navigate whatever came about.
Covid: ‘It changed everything’
One aspect of her career that she’ll always remember, but maybe wishes she didn’t, is the covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the court system.
“It’s changed everything,” she said.
Before covid, when the clerk’s office employees prepared for a jury trial, things were relatively simple. A panel of 100 jurors would convene in the upstairs courtroom where the judge and attorneys would ask the jurors a series of questions and ultimately pare the group down to a selection to 12 jurors and an alternate to serve for the trial.
After covid, because of the risk of infection of the virus, the court had to rethink how it could still choose jurors and keep people safely 6 feet apart from one another.
Becki and her office worked to find large buildings to rent out in order to conduct the jury selection with such a large group. The Gainesville Church of Christ served as one location, and the Gainesville School gym was another potential location that could have been used. Although there hasn’t been a jury trial held in Ozark County in over a year, Becki says that her office has made arrangements and began setting up for trials that were canceled the morning that the trial was set to begin.
“A lot of trials are scheduled to begin on Monday, so we’ve been up there setting up and thinking through everything on Sunday. When the school was going to be used, we were trying to figure out how we were going to get that many people parked since they had the construction [of the new FEMA] shelter going on,” she said.
And the jury selection process isn’t the only complicated matter. The trial itself and later jury deliberation is also a challenge.
Since the pandemic, the 12 jurors who are chosen to serve aren’t able to sit next to one another in a jury box like they did before. Instead, they have to spread out in the pew-seating that is generally used for public seating in the courtroom. Because the jurors are seated in the pews, there is not enough room for those who wish to watch the trial. By law, trials must be open to the public. So, the circuit clerk’s office has now found a way to video record the trial and provide a live feed on a TV in another room in the courthouse.
Once the prosecution and defense rested their cases, the jurors would normally go into a conference room off the courtroom to discuss and deliberate; however, the space is too confined to allow social distancing of 12 people. So, the circuit clerk employees now have to find another location to rent to allow the jurors enough space to social distance.
“It’s just a lot to think through and a lot to navigate,” she said. “It really complicated everything we do.”
Constantly evolving procedures
Covid is only the latest in a long line of changes Becki has seen through her work.
“It was a lot different back when I was first hired. Everything was slower, but even back then they could see it building,” she said. “And everything was done with paper and pen. All of our deeds were indexed by hand.”
In today’s world, circuit clerk and recorders across the state are working with new and continued technology to take the offices’ work into varied electronic formats. Court records are entered by computer into CaseNet, the Missouri state court system’s website, and deeds are now electronically available and filed.
“The most challenging thing is all the changes that are being made at the state level as far as procedures go. You always need to learn something new, and there’s no hands-on training. The webinars are difficult,” she said.
As for the law and statutes, those are constantly changing too. A bookshelf in the circuit clerk’s office house the bound volumes of the Missouri Revised State Statutes, the publications that list Missouri’s laws.
“When I started working here, I think there was three or four, maybe five statute books. Now we have 20-plus supplements,” she said, pointing toward the filled bookshelves.
But those changes have kept her work interesting, and for that she’s grateful. It’s been a long and rewarding career, Becki says, and she’s quite ready to give up one particular title she earned through her work.
“Back when Vance Hambelton was still at the Extension Office, Lisa [Hannaford] and I would joke that he held the title of the oldest person in the courthouse, so we didn’t. After he left, Lisa was still older than me, but then she retired in 2020 just as covid began. That left me to hold the title,” she said, laughing. “Now, I’m passing that honor on to someone else.”