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Jefferson town clerk looks back on longtime service

Union Leader Correspondent

April 06. 2014 9:11PM
As Jeremie Kenison looks on, Opal Bronson, who is currently the longest-serving municipal clerk in New Hampshire, registers his motor vehicle last Thursday at Jefferson Town Hall. (John Koziol Photo)

JEFFERSON — At 75 years young, Opal Bronson credits her longevity as Jefferson's town clerk to four things: clean living, her love of meeting and helping people and more recently, but only when it's working properly, her computer.

On March 11, as they had first done at town meeting in 1967 and which they continued to do every consecutive year since, the voters of Jefferson overwhelmingly decided that Bronson was doing a good job and should return for another 12-month term as town clerk. In her tenure as town clerk, Bronson has faced a challenger only once.

Back in January, in advance of the special primary to decide the candidates who would then compete to fill Ray Burton's unfinished term as the District 1 executive councilor, Secretary of State Bill Gardner and State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, visited 15 towns, with the men particularly eager to meet Bronson, whom they presented with a certificate for being the longest, currently-serving clerk in any New Hampshire municipality.

Historically, Bronson is not the longest-serving elected official in New Hampshire. Gardner said that in 2004, the state honored a moderator who had been serving for 69 years; a supervisor-of-the-checklist who'd been on the job for 66 years. He said he also knew of a polling official who had performed her duties for 71 years.

As far as municipal clerks, however, the honor of longest service ever belongs to the late Howard Zea, who was Plainfield's town clerk, beginning in 1943, for 58 years.

During a recent interview, Bronson, when asked if she could keep working for another 20 or 30 years, replied "sure, why not," later adding that "It's not a stressful job if the computer's working," which, however, is not always a given.

Born in Vermont and raised in Maine, Bronson is popularly known as Polly — the nickname, she explained, was courtesy of an aunt and "I don't know why she didn't like Opal, and she called me Polly and it stuck." Her family eventually settled in New Hampshire and she graduated from Lancaster High School.As a senior at LHS, Bronson met her future husband — Vernard "Butch" Bronson — and the couple married in 1959 and had four daughters: Sara, Laura, Ellen and Donna.

While Butch, beginning in 1963, served as a New Hampshire State Trooper at Troop F in nearby Twin Mountain — "We were very lucky to be able to stay in the area," Bronson noted – his better half tended to the children and home until one day when Butch announced that the then current Jefferson town clerk had told him that he was not seeking re-election and had recommended Opal to succeed him.

"He said 'you ought to run for town clerk' and I did."

Bronson threw her hat into the ring and won. She worked out of an office in her home for the next 15 years until the town clerk's office was moved into the basement of the Town Hall, and more recently, into an adjacent annex.

The one time that she was challenged for the town clerk job, Bronson recalled that it was a gentleman who had a business in Jefferson and who promised around-the-clock availability; the voters, however, decided to stick with Bronson.

A member of the Friends of the Jefferson Library, the Jefferson Christian Church, the Jefferson Hilanders Snowmobile Club and also active in numerous events around town, Bronson said she was aware that she was entering some rarefied territory because, for a while now, she has continually received the New Hampshire City & Town Clerks Association's longevity award, most recently in 2012. The awards are given every five years and the last award Bronson received marked 45 years of service.

Town clerks are elected, city clerks are appointed. The NHCTCA's membership roster lists many clerks with many years on the job, but Bronson has 10-plus years on her nearest colleague, Barbara Gagnon of Chester, who has served since October 1976.

Bronson said she still gets a charge out of coming to work. "I just love it, I love helping the people, I love meeting the people," she said, adding that over her career she has experienced many special moments, like when Woodburn and Gardner presented her with the certificate for longevity.

Bronson thanked the residents of Jefferson "who have been very gracious to me" and also thanked the many boards of selectmen she's worked with. She is also grateful for her computer, even though it is temperamental at times.

"I've only had my computer for 10 years, if that. Before then, I did everything on my typewriter," an IBM Selectric that Bronson keeps in her tiny office and still uses on occasion, "but now I love my computer."

The computer has changed the way Bronson does some things — she used to pull aside by hand motor-vehicle registrations that were set to expire and would then personally call the vehicle's owner to remind him or her that it was time to renew their registration.

Terri Larcomb, who is Jefferson's town treasurer and Bronson's niece, said she was the recipient of some of those calls and misses them now that the computer generates all the advance notice that's needed.

"She's been doing this forever," Larcomb said of Bronson, "I ask her when she's going to retire and I never get an answer."

Bronson was equally reticent about her future.

"Probably 80 percent of people in town never had another town clerk," said Bronson, the tone in her voice implying that she is proud of that fact and that she'd like to continue in the post, although her computer might be a factor in her decision-making process in 2015.

"When it works, fine, but it can be irritating if something happens to it," she said. Fortunately for her and the residents of Jefferson, Bronson's old IBM typewriter is just a short chair swivel away.

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