By Donna Thornton/News Editor
Billy Yates first entered the political arena and public service at the tender age of 25, when he ran for a seat on the Etowah County Commission.
But ask him why he first ran for the office of Circuit Clerk – which he held for 30 years, before deciding not to seek re-election in 2012 – and you get a surprising answer.
“Out of spite,” Yates responded, smiling.
“When I got here, we had a stenographer who took notes in long-hand,” he said. Yates has been in office long enough to see it change from an office with two typewriters, where the checks had to be written by hand, to one that is on its way to being paper-free, providing court system funding ever allows enough employees to scan in the remaining criminal and juvenile division records.
“I’ve spent my adult life serving the public,” Yates said, and he’s enjoyed it. “I’ve tried to serve with honor and distinction. I feel I’ve done what God wanted me to do. I believe the Lord has controlled my life.” Without the Lord, the ongoing support of his wife Holly, and the confidence of the voters, Yates said he would not have been able to serve as he has.
Yates said he’s served alongside three different probate judges, three sheriffs and 16 circuit and district judges through the years.
“I’ve trained a lot of ‘em,” Yates said, with a grin. “It’s been a wonderful trip.” He said he’d worked with four deputy clerks. ‘I was proud to see the people promoted my last one to take over the job,” Yates said, referring to the election of Cassandra “Sam” Johnson, who served as deputy clerk, as Circuit Clerk.
Throughout the years, Yates said he’s shaken hands with six presidents, some before and some after they held office: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and, just a couple of years ago, Bill Clinton.
In his 30 years as clerk, Yates said the office had handled more than $200 million, as the result of fines, fees, judgments and other payments.
Yates said he’s proud to have never missed the organization of a grand jury or petit jury during those 30 years.
He holds another mark of distinction: Yates said he’d checked and his election to the county commission at age 25 makes him the youngest person elected as a commissioner in Alabama.
How he got there, is another interesting story. Yates said he’d been in the service and after he came home couldn’t immediately find a job. Being active in the community and organizations was a family affair: his father was a representative in the AFL-CIO; his brother Felton worked for the sheriff’s department, and later served as sheriff.
When Yates considered politics, those factors and the political tenor of the times made it a natural for him to seek office as a Democrat.
“Back then, if you won the Democratic primary, that was tantamount to being elected – like it almost is now with the Republicans,” Yates said. “I’m proud to have been on the Democratic ticket.”
His race began in the fall of 1959, and he made it into the Democratic run off. As it happened, his opponent in the run off had signed the bond of a 16-year-old boy charged after Molotov cocktail was tossed against the window of Temple Beth Israel on Chestnut Street, and two members of the congregation were shot as they ran outside to stop the suspect.
It was an incident that outraged the community, and the fact that an office-seeker had signed the suspect’s bond, Yates believes, was enough to tip the election in his favor.
After serving one term on the commission, Yates did other things for a while. He was in the car business in 1982 when a series of events led him to run for the circuit clerk’s office.
Yates said he’d made a deal to trade a Plymouth wagon to a fellow, taking the man’s truck as a down payment. Then the man in question was not able to get financing for the car, which he’d taken and was driving at the time – piling miles on the car driving around and out of state on a sales job. Because he hadn’t paid for the vehicle, however, Yates still had the title.
Eventually, he told the man he needed the Plymouth back, to come get his truck, but it didn’t happen. When Yates saw the man in town, he said, he told him again, he needed the car back, to no avail. When the man left the car, Yates said he got in it and drove it back to the car lot.
And before too long, he learned from Gadsden Police detectives that the man had obtained a warrant for his arrest for first-degree theft.
That warrant was issued through the Circuit Clerk’s office, and Yates found himself headed to court – and splashed on the front page of the local paper: The sheriff’s brother arrested for theft.
At that time, Roy Moore was a prosecuting attorney for the county, Yates recalled. Jack Floyd represented Yates before Judge Wayne Miller. When the facts of the case – that Yates was being accused of stealing a vehicle he held title to – it was clear the case was without warrant.
“The judge said the warrant should have never been issued,” Yates said. “The circuit clerk should never have issued it.” Soon after, a friend suggested that Yates run against that circuit clerk.
He did, never expecting to win. Having had his name in politics earlier, people knowing his brother Felton, and the help of Gene Mitchell in his campaign, led to his win, he believes. Yates continued to hold the office until he decided to give it up.
While Yates may joke that “spite” led to his career as circuit clerk, that experience of being accused without justification remained with him, keeping him mindful of the impact the paperwork handled in the clerk’s office has on individuals.
Yates said he believes he’s been able to help people during his time in office, “without considering whether they were Democrat or Republican, black or white, male or female.”
Friends and colleagues will honor Yates at a retirement reception at 2 p.m. Jan. 3 in the Jury Assembly room at the Etowah County Judicial Building.