Recent history suggests that once you earn the position of county clerk in Schenectady County, you’re going to have it for a while, and that’s fine with John J. Woodward. He loves the job.
“It doesn’t seem to be the case in other counties, so I don’t know why we have such longevity in Schenectady County,” said Woodward, who was appointed county clerk by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994 and has been elected to five four-year terms since. “History and social studies were always my favorite subjects, and in this job I feel like an amateur historian. So I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.”
Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society, Woodward will be helping a host of amateur historians dig into their families’ pasts with a short presentation at the society’s Genealogy Day. Woodward will kick things off at 9:30 a.m. with a talk entitled, “The Role of the County Clerk’s Office in Genealogy: Real Life Stories.”
“I’m going to give an overview of the clerk’s office, and share some real-life stories from people who came in here looking for some pieces of the puzzle to their family history,” he said. “It’s going to be a group that’s interested in their family genealogy, but some of them aren’t going to know that much. We’re going to help them get started, and if we don’t have what they’re looking for, we can point them in the right direction.”
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free for members, $5 for nonmembers
MORE INFO: 374-0263, ext. 3, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Woodward grew up in Rotterdam and went to Mohonasen High School, where he was elected to the school board just a few months after completing his senior year. He also started taking classes at the University at Albany and two years later started working at the state Capitol.
“I got elected to the school board when I was very young, not yet 19, and then a bit later I was working at the state Legislature,” said Woodward. “It was all very interesting and exciting. I was 22 and working in state government. Talk about an informal master’s degree. I worked in the state Assembly for six years and learned a lot about government.”
While he was at the Legislature, Woodward finished his education at Empire State College, getting a degree in political science. After six years with the state, he was elected as receiver of taxes for the town of Rotterdam and served in that position for nine years. Upon the death of Merritt C. Willey, the Schenectady County Clerk who started in the post in 1969, Woodward was appointed county clerk by then-Gov. Cuomo in 1994.
“I knew Merritt quite well and we got along very well,” said Woodward. “He knew I was interested in the job and looking forward some day to running for county clerk, and he used to joke with me, ‘John, I’m going to run again.’ Nobody was going to beat him, and it was his way of saying, ‘Not yet, John.’ ”
When Willey took over the job, he was replacing Carroll A. (Pinky) Gardner, who had served from 1936 until his death in 1969.
“Gardner, a world champion wrestler, a big sports star, was here from the Great Depression through man walking on the moon,” said Woodward. “Gardner was a Democrat, Willey a Republican. They were both very popular and likable guys, institutions, who kept on winning elections.”
Willing to help
As county clerk, Woodward is in charge of many things.
“I’m the clerk of the court, I’m the recorder of all county land records, and I’m also the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] guy,” he said. “A lot of the people I come into contact with think that’s all I do.”
With more and more people looking into their family history these days, Woodward’s job has changed a bit over the years.
“I think dealing with the public and handling questions from them is about 35 percent of my job,” he said. “Phone calls, visits, and a lot of people want to talk to me. We try to identify what it is they’re actually looking for and how we can help them, and I encourage people to come in and ask us questions. I have a great staff and we try to be very helpful. People have to realize we’re not going to sit there and look for five hours for something, but we’re going to get them headed to where they have to go.”
Finding the information isn’t always so easy.
“Some people think the government has a big file folder with their name on it, but we’re not that organized,” said Woodward. “We have information, but it’s not all synthesized together very well. People have to go to different places to find the various pieces of their particular puzzle. If they can’t find everything here, they might have to go to the Niskayuna town clerk, the city clerk or some other place.”
While the county clerk position can get pretty political, Woodward, a Democrat, tries to stay above the fray.
“We’ve had some controversial issues in the past few years, like pistol permits, gay marriage and drivers’ licenses,” he said. “Some clerks might not like a law and feel compelled to issue a press release about it. I don’t want to quibble with my colleagues, but I don’t favor that viewpoint. We don’t get to pick and choose what laws we enforce.
“We’re not policymakers,” continued Woodward. “I think I have an appropriate understanding of this job and I really enjoy doing it. I also have no other ambition than being the county clerk. If I end my career here, I’ll be very happy.”
Saturday’s Genealogy Day will also include presentations by professional genealogist Nancy Curran, Union College’s Ellen Fladger and Melissa Tacke, librarian/archivist at the society’s Grems-Doolittle Library.