Over the last 279 years, only 31 people have served as Morris County Clerk.
Joseph Bell belongs to an even more exclusive group. He is the only living former Clerk, a fact he wryly acknowledged at Wednesday’s unveiling of a Wall of Honor in the county Clerk’s office in Morristown.
“Having just turned 70, I thought I should get a physical exam, an MRI, and a battery of tests to ensure that I would be here to speak to you this evening,” Bell said, to laughter from guests who included his family and employees who worked for him from 1983 to 1988.
County Clerk Ann Grossi described the wall of Clerk plaques — and display cases of faded deed books, cast-iron notary stamps resembling medieval torture devices, and even registries of slave births — as part of her two-year campaign to educate the public about how the Clerk’s office has evolved over the centuries.
“It’s a great job…nobody wants to leave,” said Grossi.
Her office records property transactions, oversees aspects of elections, performs notary functions and weddings, and issues I.D.s to seniors, veterans and, soon, to Gold Star parents.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
The Republican from Parsippany plans to stay, if she can fend off Chatham Democrat Shalini “Shala” Gagliardi in November.
Grossi assured the audience that Elias Bertram Mott’s place in history is secure, however.
Mott served as clerk from 1908 until his death in 1961, winning 11 elections. Throw in a prior decade as deputy clerk, and he logged more than 62 years in the Clerk’s office.
“All I can tell you is, I will not try to beat his record,” Grossi said.
Bell left the Clerk’s job to become a successful attorney in Rockaway.
Working pro bono, he won the release last year of secret records in an attempt to solve the murder of a black veteran lynched in Georgia in 1946.
While he loves the pursuit of justice, Bell fondly recalls his days as Morris County Clerk.
“Being a lawyer is okay. But I truly miss the employees, their lives, their families, their activities, the teamwork and the camaraderie that we all enjoyed” in the Clerk’s office, he told the gathering.
Video: Joe Bell reflects on Yogi, and more, from his days as Morris County Clerk
Among innovations he introduced were credit card bail payments and one-day passport service.
The latter offering garnered considerable media attention, and attracted celebrities such as Connie Francis and Yogi Berra.
“When Yogi came in, I knew this was a good idea,” Bell said.
He also organized some huge immigrant naturalization ceremonies.
“That was very, very rewarding,” he said, adding that staffers were encouraged to don historical costumes on such occasions.
“Sorry, Pammy!” Bell said to his former Statue of Liberty, flashing a grin 30 years in the making.