BY CLARA VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —
When Samuel H. Cooper Jr. started his career, he planned to be a funeral service provider.
More than 40 years later, he is retiring after four decades of service as Accomack County’s Clerk of Circuit Court.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” said Cooper, who recently announced his retirement from the role he began in 1983.
“I’ve never had a day that I’ve dreaded coming to work,” he said of his career.
A licensed funeral service provider, Cooper’s career in the office on the Accomac courthouse green began in a funeral home.
Clifton Humbles, owner and operator of C.C. Humbles Funeral Service, where Cooper was working at age 27, was reading the newspaper one morning and saw the candidates running for circuit court clerk.
“His question to the four of us was … ‘Which one of these candidates do you think would hire people of color?’” Cooper said.
“He said, ‘This would probably be an opportune time for someone of color to run for the office and … the person is sitting right here at this table.’”
Initially laughing at the prospect of running for the elected position, Cooper won by 47 votes. He has won the five elections since and will have served 40 years in the role in December.
He was the first Black employee not only to serve as the circuit court clerk in Accomack County, but also in the clerk’s office.
Cooper’s election was the first time a Black candidate on the Eastern Shore had been elected to a position required by the state constitution.
He started the job with the skills to look up a deed, so Cooper took a three-day trip to Charlottesville after winning the election to learn more about the duties of a circuit court clerk.
“Realistically, I was more confused after I left than when I got there,” he said. “You can’t pick up a textbook that says ‘Clerk of Court 101.’”
He attributes part of his early success in the position to inheriting “a good staff.”
Cooper laughed that he is still tackling the learning curve — and said that is part of what kept him in his role for 40 years.
“You’re constantly learning,” he said. “There are days that I can come into this office and I feel confident there’s nothing you can ask me that I can’t address, then that’s the very day that you come up with something that I’ve never heard of in my life.”
Sometimes, the requests have nothing to do with circuit court records.
He recalled one instance when a dialysis patient called Cooper’s office upset because a doctor had changed the time of her appointment.
He called the medical center to explain the situation and assisted in moving the appointment back.
“You don’t really know what to expect from one day to the next … but it’s been a very, very wonderful experience,” Cooper said.
“The most rewarding part is the fact that you earn people’s trust and you earn their confidence.”
He credits his family with supporting his career, recounting a time when, as president of the Virginia Court Clerks Association, he was arranging an annual convention on Chincoteague Island with the help of his wife, Sandra Cooper.
“Sandy and myself were soliciting door prizes from the businesses on Chincoteague and, if we went in to 10 businesses, eight of them knew her but didn’t know me,” he said.
His son, Cedrick L. Cooper Sr., an accountant, plans to run for Accomack’s Clerk of Circuit Court position in the upcoming election, he said.
Cooper’s advice to his successor is to approach the role with compassion.
“What’s not important to you can be the epitome of importance to someone else,” he said. “This position can be a counseling session … as much as an administrative position.”
He said he does not have specific plans following his retirement, but will be more active in his Cooper & Humbles Funeral Company, which his daughter, Shenae, manages.
His decision to retire, Cooper said, is to bring “new blood” to the role he served for 40 years.
His hopes are for his replacement “to be open-minded to technology and innovations related to this office, and to do what you can to keep your employees happy.”
“I hope they can have a third of the enjoyment that I’ve had,” he added. “It’s been very rewarding in the fact that over the years, I have earned the respect of many residents.”
“It’s a humbling feeling when people have that much confidence in you.”
Cooper’s last day as Accomack County’s Clerk of Circuit Court will be Dec. 31, though he said he will be “in and out” of the office to assist his successor.