copyright the Chronicle March 19, 2014
by Bethany M. Dunbar
CHARLESTON — Town Clerk Jeannine Bennett retired at Town Meeting this year, after 30 years of service to the town.
Actually, she did not attend Town Meeting because she wanted to avoid a big fuss.
“They did the whole cake thing two years ago,” she said. Instead, she took a trip to Maryland to visit her daughter and son-in-law, Julie and Heath Wilson, and her 12-year-old grandson Jeff.
When Mrs. Bennett started working for the town, a lot of the town records were hand written.
“I knew shorthand. That’s one of the reasons I got hired,” she said. She also had excellent penmanship.
“My mother was a teacher. The Palmer method,” she said. As a result, Mrs. Bennett was taught to write cursive neatly and clearly.
Mrs. Bennett and her husband, Dean, moved to Charleston in 1976. He serves the town as a selectman. They have been married 40 years.
She started as an auditor and then took a position as assistant clerk. She worked in that job until the town clerk at the time, Joan Craig, retired, in 1992. At that time, she took over the clerk’s job and has been re-elected ever since.
Before that, she had worked as a bookkeeper in Burlington for the supervisory union there, and then as a filing clerk for the unemployment office in Newport.
After she got the position as town clerk and treasurer, she took courses in order to get certified as both Vermont Municipal Clerk and Municipal Treasurer. She also completed courses at Salve Regina University for three summers, and graduated from the International Institute of Municipal Clerks, and then went on to take some courses at the Master Municipal Clerks Academy.
These days the job of town clerk involves computers, e-mail, and filling out dozens of for One of the biggest changes she has seen in the job over the years is the steady increase in regulations, and with them, more paperwork.
“You’ve always got to get a report out to somebody,” she said. One example of a new regulation: “The state is requiring everybody to record their new wells.”
Election days were always extremely long days, she said, usually from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Another new regulation is that people who can’t see are allowed to vote by phone. So in order to make sure that person’s vote is private, one or two of the clerks or other town officers also vote by phone. Those results are sent directly to the secretary of state’s office. The lone result would make the voter’s choices known to the clerks if they didn’t buffer it with a couple of others.
Mrs. Bennett has done that and doesn’t mind that task.
“It’s fun. Listen to the menu,” she said.
She said she always liked the treasurer part of the job better than the clerk part. “I just like numbers. You get very frustrated when things don’t balance. But then when you find it, it’s exciting,” she said. Like a puzzle.
On the clerk side, she particularly liked helping people who were looking for genealogical information, like birth and death and marriage certificates.
“You get more in the summer,” she said, when tourists decide to find their roots.
Mrs. Bennett grew up in Newport, except for her first five years when she lived in Morrisville. She was one of ten children, and when she showed up for school at age six, she barely spoke English at all. French was spoken at home. Her maiden name is Comtois. Her parents had the Edwards and Comtois furniture store in Newport.
“They’re tearing that building down now,” she said. It’s part of the Spates Block.
“My mom ran it for a long time,” she said, after her father died. Her older brother helped their mother run the business.
Her mother had ten children in the space of 13 years. “My grandmother lived with us most of the time, so she helped.”
She remembers the whole family piling into a station wagon to drive to Lowell for Sunday dinners.
Mrs. Bennett went to school at Sacred Heart, from first grade through high school, and loved the excellent music program. She is part of a group of singers that call themselves the Sister Edmund Madrigal Singers. “I love singing,” she said. She also sang with the Derby Stock theater group and sings in her church choir.
The timing of Mrs. Bennett’s retirement had to do with not only how long she had served, but also her health. She has Lyme disease and visits to doctors take up a lot of her time. She also tires more easily and worries that her cognition might not be perfect.
She does not know how long she has had Lyme disease, but she was diagnosed in 2005. In 1998 or ’99, she started going numb on the left side of her body. She saw three neurologists, none of whom figured it out.
Her personal experience with Lyme disease has inspired her to get involved in lobbying for better treatment. A bill that has passed the Vermont House, H.123, allows doctors to treat the disease with long-term antibiotics. There are two conflicting theories on Lyme disease, and one of them is that people should be treated for three weeks and then they are cured.
Mrs. Bennett’s own experience, and that of family members, is not that.
In retirement, Mrs. Bennett enjoys walking every day. She will continue with lobbying, and traveling to visit her family, and she’s been helping with town business when the new town clerk, Teri Gray, calls.
“She’s ready for it,” said Mrs. Bennett. She said she is available to help when something comes up. “There’s always something that happens that you haven’t done before,” she said. If it’s something she doesn’t know either, there is a listserve group online of town clerks who help each other with problems.
One example of something the new clerk and assistant had not done by themselves was setting the tax rate. Although she has been training her assistants for a while, Mrs. Bennett said, “They weren’t writing things down because they thought they were going to convince me to stay,” she said.
But Mrs. Bennett had made up her mind, and there was no changing it.
While the Town Meeting proceeded, Mrs. Bennett was in Maryland watching her grandson, who had landed a big part: He was the Modern Major General in the Pirates of Penzance. It seems he has inherited Mrs. Bennett’s love of singing and performing, and that’s the kind of thing no grandmother should miss.
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at firstname.lastname@example.org