By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
RIPLEY – Illness has weakened the body of retired Circuit Clerk James Ervin Dees, but nothing has quenched his desire and willingness to serve.
The beloved 73-year-old Dees served for 28 years before a stroke in April 2007 began eating away at his health. He chose not to seek re-election for another term and must now use a wheelchair for mobility.
“I miss it very much,” Dees said. “I enjoyed my work so much and wanted to stay, but couldn’t. I wish I could have continued.”
Dees was a widower with three children – Regina, a young newlywed, Mike and Bruce – when he took office. His son Chris was born later to a second marriage.
As his oldest child Regina Kuykendall, now a sixth-grade teacher at Pine Grove, was someone Dees counted on as his campaign surrogate throughout his public service career.
“He didn’t encourage us to be at the office because he didn’t want the public he served to think he put us ahead of them, so there were a lot of things he did that people loved him for that I didn’t know until after the stroke,” Kuykendall said.
“Bruce lives with my dad,” Kuykendall said. “He’s been so much a help he doesn’t even realize. He’s allowed me to have time with my kids, my job, other things I couldn’t do without him. He gives to us every day, staying there with Daddy.”
Bruce was critically injured as a teenager in the car accident in which their mother was killed on Feb. 17, 1979. They were struck by a drunk driver and Bruce was hospitalized in Memphis for months afterward and had to go through numerous surgeries.
“She was our world and loved us better than anything,” Kuykendall said.
Another mother and daughter – Bettye Hardin and Kathy Sturdivant – were part of Dees’ team in the circuit clerk’s office, Hardin serving as a deputy clerk at the start of his career and Sturdivant toward the end.
“We ran against each other in that first election in 1983, and we got to like and respect each other,” Hardin said. “Then when he won he hired me. We both started Jan. 3, 1984.”
Five couples waiting outside the door to apply for marriage licenses on that first day was a reality check. Neither of them had received any prior training or knew how to find anything in the office.
“It was kind of trial and error,” Hardin said. “We got it all worked out. Then we had court coming up in February, and Judge Bill Lamb told us all we needed to do to get ready for that.”
Hardin was the only deputy clerk in those days, but she went on to be elected a justice court judge and left the circuit clerk’s office. However, their friendship – and the closeness of their families – continues until now.
“It was one of the most enjoyable, best experiences of my life,” said Hardin, now retired from county employment after working 15 years in the sheriff’s office.
Years later, in 2006, Sturdivant got a call that Dees might have an opening for a deputy clerk and wanted to talk with her about it.
“I was so flattered,” she said. “I felt like working in that office was a family debt that needed to be paid. He is truly one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known.”
The mother and daughter acknowledged the many other deputy circuit clerks who have effectively and lovingly served with Dees through the years, but had many of their own stories to share.
• During Dees’ first year in office – 1984 – the body of a newborn that they called Baby Jane Doe was found by a lake west of Ripley. The sheriff investigated but the baby was never identified. When her funeral was held, only law enforcement and county employees attended her services, and she was buried in a pauper’s grave at the cemetery with no marker. Dees paid out of his own pocket for a tombstone that remains there to acknowledge her life to this day.
Sturdivant said she would occasionally drive Dees out to the cemetery to visit that grave.
• Dees wrote a poem for Red Ribbon Week in 1995 that was set to music as a recitation and put on a CD. Proceeds from sales of the CD were donated to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers in memory of his wife who was killed by a drunk driver. Red Ribbon Week, observed each October, is an alcohol, tobacco and other drug and violence prevention awareness campaign. Dees was honored with the 1996 Victim Advocate Award by Tippah County Survival Inc.
“I never realized how much he meant to people until he was in the hospital in Tupelo after his stroke,” Kuykendall said. “Young and old would come up hugging him and he could say who they were. It was the most humbling experience.”
The many acts of kindness his daughter only learned of through others are probably the reason Dees faced no opposition in at least three of his reelection bids.
“He ran for office with honesty and integrity,” Sturdivant said. “He always said he was not a politician but a public servant. All the employees loved him like we do. With all his honors and awards, he never forgot where he came from and was dedicated to helping the people who elected him.”