CAIRO CITY CLERK Carolyn Lee will end her 46-year tenure with the city on Friday. On Thursday she will be the guest of honor at a retirement luncheon.
Having worked for eight city managers and seven mayors, Cairo’s veteran city clerk has decided to work less and travel more as she ends her 46-year career with the city this week.
Carolyn B. Lee’s last day is Friday and as she departs City Hall one last time as a city official it will mark the end of a remarkable tenure.
When asked why she is leaving now Mrs. Lee responded in her no nonsense fashion, “because it’s time.”
“There is a time for everything and it’s just time. I’m ready to go home and spend more time with my husband,” she added.
Mrs. Lee began work on July 31, 1973. She was interviewed for the job by the late John W. Walker, who was city manager and a longtime city employee. “He gave me a chance to prove myself,” Mrs. Lee said.
In addition to Walker, she served with former city managers Dan Wells, Joe Morton, Tom Lynn, Robert Hopkins, David Smith, William Whitson and Chris Addleton.
Mrs. Lee is quick to say that Addleton was her favorite.
“He has been the best city manager I worked for. He is the best boss and he let me do my job,” she said.
Over the last 46 years, the city clerk has seen many councilmen and mayors come and go. She served under mayors Adrian Clark, Frank Cannon, James H. LeGette, Dan Wells, Richard VanLandingham, Bobby Burns, and now Mayor Booker Gainor.
She recalls that when she first began with the city, longtime clerk Clara Mauldin was still working. Ms. Mauldin served as the city clerk from 1955 until 1973.
“I still have her stapler and have been using it all these years. It’s well over 50 years old,” Mrs. Lee said.
From 1973 until 2004, Mrs. Lee worked side by side with former city clerk and treasurer Martha Faye Lewis.
While looking back over her decades of public service the city clerk says the biggest change to occur during her career has been the integration of technology into the operations of city government.
“We got our first computer in 1989 and we started out using it exclusively for payroll. It was a while later before we added on other applications. When I first came here, we had a typewriter, a telephone and an adding machine,” she said.
The expansion of Cairo Municipal Court over the years has resulted in the city staff being more and more dependent on technology, according to Mrs. Lee.
“We couldn’t do without our court software. The court has gotten too big now. When I first started, everything was done manually,” Mrs. Lee said.
One thing the city clerk says she will not miss is serving as the superintendent of municipal elections.
“I won’t miss the elections. That’s one of the reasons I’m going when I am. I may help out and work as a poll worker, but I’m not ever going to be the superintendent,” Mrs. Lee said.
Her desire to make sure the elections, from start to finish, were conducted error free and properly made it stressful, she says. “You can’t control the actions of others and it bothers me. I just want things to be done right,” she added.
Mrs. Lee’s last day on the job is this Friday, Aug. 31 and her departure is just over two months prior to the Nov. 5 municipal election. In addition to three council seats being up for election, municipal voters will also be deciding whether the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday, by the package or by the drink, will be permitted in Cairo.
The city clerk says in addition to her daily interaction with her co-workers she will miss seeing people. “I really miss the days when we used to collect (city) taxes. I would see so many people I didn’t get to see any other time. It was nice to see them. Now, we just collect fines,” she said.
Since taking over the responsibilities of city clerk in 2004, Mrs. Lee has been a fixture at the twice monthly meetings of the Cairo Mayor and Council, only missing a handful of meetings during that time.
She says she covered for former clerk Martha Faye Lewis sometime in the 1980s and it was the first time she had gone to a city council meeting. As she remembers that night, former councilman, the late Raymond Hurst and an upset constituent got into a heated discussion and she feared they were about to come to blows “right over my head.”
“I never dreaded another council meeting. That one broke me in,” she said.
After being named the clerk upon the retirement of Mrs. Lewis, Mrs. Lee made it a priority to record the minutes of each council meeting with complete accuracy. She can proudly say that her minutes have only needed corrections at the instruction of the city council less than a half dozen times from the approximately 400 meetings where she has served as the clerk.
“Every day has not been good, but the good has outweighed the bad. Especially since Chris (Addleton) came,” Mrs. Lee said.
Determined would be an appropriate description of the veteran city employee. She has been determined to grow, prosper and achieve ever since she and her twin sister were brought home from the hospital.
“They brought an incubator home that we were kept in. We only weighed about four pounds each,” Mrs. Lee remembers.
Carolyn Barrineau Lee grew up on a farm south of Whigham with her mother, father, three brothers and twin sister. Her father was a carpenter and farmer, but he also helped care for the twins when they were born. “It took two of them to take care of us,” Mrs. Lee said. Only her middle brother and sister are still living.
The Lees have always been travelers, taking advantage of vacation time from work to travel to most all of the Caribbean Islands, Canada, Alaska, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal twice, plus dozens of cruises.
The retiring city clerk says she is eager to pack her suitcase for new adventures, but not international travel.
“I’d like to spend some more time in the interior of Alaska and I want to see the northern lights. I’ve never been to Niagara Falls, I also want to go there. We also want to go back out west. There are two or three states I haven’t been to yet,” Mrs. Lee said.
When the Lees are not traveling, she has plans to dig into her collection of notebooks she has kept over the years with pages filled with items she has wanted to make, but never had the time.
Even in her spare time while working for the city a pastime for Mrs. Lee has been refinishing furniture, redoing picture frames and mirrors, and making a variety of crafts including signs, wreaths, Christmas decorations and more.
“I love to hunt for treasure. Whenever we go somewhere we’ve always got to stop in places along the way and stop at flea markets, yard sales and auctions and pick up things,” she says.
Her hobby exceeds her needs and as an outlet for all that she creates or repurposes she sells at her booth “Carolyn’s Cottage” located at This Is Home For Us in Whigham. “If I can’t use something, I take it up there and sell it.”
Anytime she would see something she wanted to try and make herself she would make a copy or take a photo of it and file it away in a notebook.
“I’m looking forward to making all of those things I’ve always wanted to make and didn’t have time for,” she said.
Mrs. Lee’s husband, Billy, worked at Timken, now Koyo, until he retired in 2001. Now, with both of them retired from full-time jobs they will have time for more travel and making more handicrafts, the clerk says.
They will also have more time for their two great granddaughters, who are ages three and four, as well as their three sons and seven grandchildren.
Mrs. Lee will be honored at a retirement luncheon being held in her honor on Thursday, and on Monday night members of the city council took the opportunity to recognize her during her last council meeting as the city clerk.
Councilman James H. (Jimmy) Douglas said that some folks may have thought that he and the city clerk did not get along, but he said the fact of the matter is that they both enjoy giving each other a hard time.
“Miss Carolyn came to work in July 1973 and I graduated from college in June 1974 and soon after I worked on the audit for the City of Cairo, so me and Carolyn and Martha Faye were somewhat in an adversarial role,” Douglas said.
Over the years, Douglas said, he worked with Mrs. Lee as the city’s auditor, a city employee (part-time finance director), interim city manager and lastly as a member of the city council. “We go back to 1974 working together and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. She does work for Mr. Addleton and Mr. Lehman that we don’t know about and she will be missed. I hope she will be around so we can call her. She has a lot of knowledge and the only way you get 50 years experience is to work 50 years. I appreciate what you have done and I wish you a happy retirement. You deserve it!” Councilman Douglas said.
“I’ve been on this council almost 16 years. I appreciate all the help I’ve gotten from you,” Mayor Pro Tem Lannis Thornton commented.
Councilman Bobby Gwaltney said that his association with Mrs. Lee stretched back nearly as long as Councilman Douglas. Gwaltney reminisced about his work in programming the old lever-style voting machines for both city and county elections and his work with Mrs. Lee during his career with the local telephone company. “I’ve enjoyed working together. You’ve always been there to help and I appreciate you,” Gwaltney said.
Councilman Jerry Cox also expressed his gratitude for Mrs. Lee’s service and wished her well in retirement. He joked that his election to the council must have been a breath of fresh air compared to what she had endured working alongside Councilman Douglas.
Mayor Booker Gainor also thanked Mrs. Lee for her service and the help she had provided him during his short tenure as mayor.
Cairo City Manager Chris Addleton said that Mrs. Lee had “trained” a lot of city managers during her tenure and at least one was very thankful, himself. “You’ve always been wise counsel for me and someone I could turn to for advice. If she tells you something, you can count on it,” the city manager said.
Thomas L. Lehman has served as the city attorney since 1988 and he, too, has worked closely with the city clerk over the last three decades.
“I’m going to miss you. I don’t know a lot of things, but you seem to know everything. A lot of people don’t know how vast your knowledge is. If she didn’t know something, she knew who to touch to get information when you needed it. She knows exactly where to go to get information and I have appreciated that over the years. You are very professional and extremely knowledgeable,” the city attorney said.
Dana Barfield, the current assistant city clerk, who has recorded the meeting minutes for the past two council meetings, had kind words for her mentor.
“When I started with the city almost 15 years ago, Miss Carolyn was the one who hired me. She has always been a leader, a teacher, a true mentor. Words cannot describe what she means to the city, much less me. She is a remarkable woman. I have always thought she could do anything. She is the most determined and dedicated worker you will ever find. She will work circles around most people and she will truly be missed. City Hall will not be the same without her,” Mrs. Barfield said.
“I appreciate all of the knowledge the people here before me shared with me and I appreciate the people who are here now. They are not just my coworkers, but my friends. This is a good group here at City Hall. I’ll miss our daily conversations and interactions,” Mrs. Lee said.
The veteran city employee said that she would be looking forward to Monday mornings knowing that she would no longer have the responsibilities of city clerk. “All of that will be lifted off my shoulders,” she said.