There’s a notion in the world of employment that no one is irreplaceable. No one except Charlene Simmons, that is.
Simmons, 59, has worked for the Hamilton County Court System for 40 years. And when she goes home for the last time Dec. 31, she’ll leave a gap no one will be able to fill, says Clerk & Master Robin Miller.
“Charlene is a kind and gentle soul and one of the most conscientious workers I’ve known,” Miller says of her chief equity deputy clerk. “She is, undoubtedly, irreplaceable.”
Simmons began her four-decade tenure with the courts in the child support division of Juvenile Court Oct. 13, 1980, when it was located on Dodds Avenue and Dixie Smith and the Hon. Suzanne Bailey were in charge.
She took the job just two weeks after starting work at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee because she says she believed the position would work out better for her in the long run.
Forty years later, Simmons can look back on a wealth of positive work experiences and a king’s ransom in friendships, but she says her time with the courts is coming to an end.
“I want to enjoy my grandson, who’s just turned 4, and see what the next chapter holds,” she explains. “It’s been a wonderful career, but I’m ready to go home and enjoy a bit of life.”
When Simmons decided to retire, it was the first time she’d considered leaving. Not only has she been blessed with work she loved and co-workers she loved even more, she says, she wanted to follow her mother’s advice to stay.
“I had two sisters and two brothers, and we didn’t have the opportunity to go to college unless we wanted to go into debt, so we went to work,” Simmons remembers. “When I was hired, my mom said, ‘Stay there,’ and I did.”
Simmons spent 16 years at juvenile court, where she worked her way from receptionist to legal assistant. When she heard rumors about Maximus, a private agency, taking over the court’s child support services, she started looking for another position.
As luck would have it, a friend of Simmons was auditing the Clerk & Master’s Office as Chancellor Howell Peoples was searching for a judicial clerk. After the woman told Simmons about the job, Simmons pursued and landed it.
A month after starting the new position, Simmons swapped spots with the lady at the front desk and began a 17-year run in what she calls “the hot seat.”
“It’s the hot seat because I was the first person people saw, so it was busy,” Simmons explains. “I loved it. I got to know a lot of people – all the lawyers and runners.
“I liked getting to know everyone, and they liked getting to know me, and we all became friends over the years.”
Miller was in private practice at Gearhiser Peters when she first met Simmons more than 20 years ago. Whenever she filed a case in Chancery Court, she enjoyed greeting and talking with Simmons, who was “knowledgeable, friendly and competent,” Miller says.
Miller learned just how valuable Simmons was when she became Hamilton County’s clerk and master in September 2014.
“On my very first day on the job, Charlene received a call from a panicked attorney who needed a form he had to file that afternoon,” Miller recalls. “It was about 3:45 p.m. Charlene calmly printed the form and the lawyer was at our office a few minutes later signing it. I have called Charlene my lawyer ever since.”
“My mom and dad taught us to be hard workers,” Simmons says “They drove that into us.”
Simmons’ work ethic is impeccable, Miller says, which is why she and many other lawyers would wait in line at the clerk and master’s office until she was available to serve them.
“Some people would stand back and not let anyone else wait on them,” Simmons smiles. “Some of them still do that to this day, and I’m not even at the front counter.”
Simmons says she would have happily occupied the hot seat for the rest of her working days, but when a perfect storm of retirements and personnel shifts hit the clerk and masters’ office in 2014, she was offered a promotion to chief equity deputy clerk. She took the job, despite an aversion to change, because it came with a nice bump in pay, she says.
“I sat on the fence for a while,” Simmons clarifies. “I was leery of jumping from that 17-year seat I loved to the supervisor’s seat, but the money was too good to pass up.”
As Simmons looks back on 40 years of dedicated service, memories saturate her thoughts. Many are associated with the attorneys, judges and other legal professionals she came to know, while others are tied to what she calls her work family.
She’s especially fond of reminiscing about their many Halloween celebrations, when the entire office would dress up. “In 2003, my department dressed up as the Beverly Hillbillies,” she laughs. “I was granny.”
Simmons’ voice takes on a wistful quality as she discusses her plans for this year’s Halloween celebration – her last with her co-workers. She then retains this tone as she ponders waking up on her first Monday morning after retiring.
“It’s going to be weird and bittersweet,” she says. “I was talking with my husband about feeling worthless, or wondering what my purpose will be, because this job has been my purpose. I think once I get into a different routine, I’m going to like it.”
Simmons will have more than her grandson, Brody, to keep her busy. She plans to continue working out a few days a week, spend more time with her husband and son, and enjoy her Soddy Daisy home.
Even then, Simmons says she’s going to miss her work family – and they’re going to miss her, Miller says.
“Charlene’s knowledge of procedure is impressive, as is her familiarity with the myriad cases that have been filed in the office,” Miller says. “Throughout an average day, a lawyer will call wanting to know if we have a certain type of case he or she could see, and within a few minutes, Charlene has located files that fit what the lawyer needs.
“It’s hard to put into words what she means to the office and the legal community.”