Hallenbeck closes four decades to retire
RENSSELAERVILLE — Kathleen Hallenbeck knows how to read more than columns of tax figures or meeting minutes. She knows how to read people.
Those abilities have stood her in good stead as she has served Rensselaerville, her hometown, as clerk for 40 years.
Her tenure broke a longstanding tradition.
By the 1970s, a custom of alternating town clerk nominations among the town’s handful of hamlets had been established. Each town clerk got a pair of two-year terms. After four years passed with one clerk, two new nominees from a different hamlet would run and the winner would get a large safe brought into her home for keeping money and records for the town.
“I was the first one to break that cycle,” said Hallenbeck, sitting in her usual spot, to the right hand of the supervisor, at the empty meeting table in Town Hall. An afternoon reception in her honor is being held there on Jan. 5; she’s retiring after four decades as the town’s clerk.
“Somebody approached my husband and said, ‘Would your wife like a job?” Hallenbeck recalled of her beginning the job in her 20s. “And they came to me, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it.’”
Hallenbeck, 65, uses both her skills of compassion — greeting mothers showing off their babies or new homeowners curious about local history — and math, her favorite subject in school and the influence of her mother. Hallenbeck’s mother, Kathleen Bennett, was an gregarious bookkeeper for the Greenville Central School District and member of several local organizations.
“I like the tax collection,” said Hallenbeck of her job. “I like things that add up.”
Bennett was Hallenbeck’s deputy town clerk when she started. Hallenbeck said she had to train herself and relied on a network of more experienced clerks in nearby towns for advice. Now, other clerks call her, but, she says, a good clerk needs to be able to read people.
“The main thing is a smile on your face that’ll melt anybody,” said Hallenbeck.
Growing up in Rensselaerville, Hallenbeck wanted to be an airline stewardess.
“Like a stewardess, you’re meeting people all the time and you’re also not a caregiver, but you’re a helper,” she said. “And here, we’re always helping somebody do something, whatever it could be.”
When people enter the town hall, they sometimes don’t know what they want, Hallenbeck said. A clerk asks questions.
Hallenbeck told a story of an elderly woman who drove her car into a ditch; she was picked up by a man who dropped her off at town hall. She walked into the town hall with a drained look on her face.
“We knew that there was something wrong, so we kind of had to ask her what was wrong, and bring her into our office, put her down in a chair, and give her comfort,” said Hallenbeck.
“You just get to look at their faces and see,” she explained. “You know there are some things wrong, and you just kind of pull it out of them.”
Sometimes, her care went beyond the town hall walls. A man walked into her office one day asking for a glass of water.
"Evidently, it was the hottest day of summer," said Hallenbeck. "He was out walking, and you could tell." The walker refused Hallenbeck's offer for a ride home as she was closing her office. When she drove to the top of the hill above Town Hall, the man, dressed in black, was sitting on the corner of the intersection. Hallenbeck repeated her offer and drove the man home.
Through her job, Hallenbeck has met most of the town’s 1,800 residents, learned about their family histories, and known most of the town’s roads.
“It sort of brings you out of yourself sometimes,” Hallenbeck said of the job. She will be followed by Democrat Victoria Kraker, the town’s court clerk.
The town clerk's position has been packed with duties and changed with technology over Hallenbeck’s four decades, since she worked four hours a week in the small town hall and out of her home for any other hours. This month, the computer for hunting licenses is being replaced by a computer program and a printer from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
With an office in her home, Hallenbeck said, her children grew up with residents stopping by when they needed a dog, marriage, or hunting license.
“Those papers aren’t very pretty,” Hallenbeck said of the forms used by her office. “We don’t have to, but we get a form that’s pink, or green. It’s a form that we can order from the state.” The license information is typed onto the colorful forms so they can be framed and hung on a wall.
It was in 1989, when the clerk relied more on computers for her work, that the position became full-time. For meeting minutes, the computer saves time and Hallenbeck uses a cassette recorder to replay any unclear statements.
“Well, you know, computers don’t save paper,” said Hallenbeck. She still writes in a logbook and fills in receipts by hand; those are then put into a computer.
“It’s old school and I trust it a little bit more,” said Hallenbeck.
Hallenbeck said she will now be able to do more with her grandchildren and complete her goal of visiting all 50 states with her husband on their motorcycle. As part of a BMW motorcycle club, they travel to rallies around the country, missing only Louisiana, Hawaii, and Alaska.
“I love Montana, because of the night. It’s 10 o’clock at night and it’s still bright,” said Hallenbeck, who has lived in Rensselaerville all of her life.
She said retiring will give her a chance to be more active as a member of the Rensselaerville Fire Company and the American Legion Clark White Post No. 589, of which her parents were longtime members.
Hallenbeck has been the town’s clerk since 1974. She has been through several iterations of the town board and tense meetings.
On a politically divided board in 2008, three Democrats passed rules for public participation. Anyone requesting placement on the town board’s agenda was required to contact the town clerk by 1 p.m. the day of the meeting with a “specific reason for their request.” A majority of the board was required to add items to the agenda and time limits were set for public comment.
“I think they should talk things out and get along,” Hallenbeck said of her advice to future town officials. “They’re working for the good of the town, not just their own personal pet project.”
When Hallenbeck first started, the board had a Republican majority.
Hallenbeck said she became friends with many town officials, among them Democrat Marie Dermody — both graduated from Greenville High School — and Myra Dorman, once the town’s Republican chairwoman who has been a supervisor and a councilwoman.
“The current town clerk is a woman to be admired. I don’t think we could get along without her,” Dorman told The Enterprise in 2001, when asked why no Republican challengers had been nominated.
Before the first section of the current town hall was built in 1966, board meetings were held in the town clerk’s home. Years before, town clerks were typically men, Hallenbeck noted.
She said she couldn’t explain why the town board’s party majority has alternated over the years, nor why Rensselaerville, distinct from the other Hilltowns, has had so many women serve on the council, and three as supervisor.
“We’re bolder up here,” she guessed with a laugh.
In the 1940s, Hallenbeck’s father, a carpenter, was a councilman.
“Our doors were never locked,” she said of growing up. “It was like, if somebody broke down in the street or they needed the phone, they could walk in and use the phone.”