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Stiff Competition

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Inside his tidy office in the Powhatan Circuit Court building, William Maxey Jr. fishes a photograph from the pocket of his sports coat hanging from a rack. The bent picture shows an elaborate cake shaped like the courts building with a red-frosting roof, freestanding pillars and a figurine in a fedora that represents Maxey.

"That's what my wife's daughter made me when I finished my first 50 years," he says.

The cake was the centerpiece at a reception earlier this year commemorating his half century of public service. At 86, Maxey has served six eight-year terms -- and one initial two-year appointment — as the county's clerk of the court.

And this November, he's running again.

"I don't hunt. I don't fish. I don't golf," Maxey says. Retirement? "I couldn't stand it," he says. "I'd have nothing to do. I'd rather have this than anything else."

Maxey's seen the county balloon from 5,562 residents to more than 22,000, and collected every housing deed, marriage license and fee or fine to come through the courthouse. He recalls when county records were handwritten, he's witnessed the evolution of typewriters and the eventual transition to computers. In 1992, his office moved into the main building from a small cottage on the court's lawn.

Maxey tends to run unopposed. He faced competition only once, in 1983, when Howard Clark and Robert Keeton both tried to win the seat. Keeton got 819 votes, Clark got 841, but Maxey prevailed with 2,686. Perhaps the lack of competition has influenced his low-key campaign style. When you're unopposed, it's easy to rest on your laurels.

"I don't put up outdoor signs," he says, "but I get tired of looking at them strung up on the highway marring the beauty of the landscape." And he knows that when he goes home at night he doesn't appreciate people knocking on his door, so he spares his constituents the bother. "I think I'm doing the people a favor," he says.

Twenty-two years ago, a couple came into the clerk's office to apply for a marriage license. They forgot the groom's mother's middle name and had to call relatives before finishing up the paperwork.

"Do you really want this?" Maxey asked them, laughing. That former bride, Beth Featherston Jones, is now 44 and has two children. She's running against Maxey in the November elections. Also vying for the seat is David E. Lawhon, 50, a teacher at Beaumont Juvenile Correction Center.

Jones embraces a more modern campaigning approach: her comprehensive Web site flashes a picture of a bright yellow placard advertising her candidacy.

"It's going to be a really tough race," Jones says. "I've got to get the younger crowd out to vote. I've got to get them to understand that computers are important and we've got to get things up to date."

Specifically, Jones says she is concerned that records from the 18th and 19th centuries still need to be digitized.

"I think it's going to take someone a little younger with a little more computer skills to do that," she says, adding that her corporate and customer service experience with Ukrop's Super Markets and her current employment at a computer parts purchasing firm give her the right skills.

Lawhon, who says his "vitality" makes him the man for the job, would also like to update the court's technological capabilities.

"Well, I think a lot of things could be done but the thing of it is, [do they] have the money to have it done?" rebuts Maxey.

Jones says she has nothing bad to say about Maxey and points to his stellar reputation in the county. But is he too old for the job?

"It's an eight-year term," Jones says, nodding to the affirmative. "Everyone would have to agree that that's probably true."

What does Maxey say to people who suggest that 50 years is enough?

"I've never had to answer that question," Maxey says. That may have to do with the crowd he runs with. His friend E. Floyd Yates says he's doing his "damnedest to see that [Maxey's] re-elected." He's coordinating an advertisement for the local paper and plans to do a little fundraising.

Does Yates think Maxey is too old?

"No!"

Why not?

"I'm 104!"

Yates walks with a cane, not a walker, and addressed the 50th anniversary party in Maxey's honor. At the party, he told the story of Maxey's predecessor getting forced out of office after an audit showed the finances were off.

"I was the one who took him over to the judge and got him sworn in," recalls Yates, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 1942 and headed the Powhatan Democratic Party for 40 years.

Clerk isn't the only job Yates helped Maxey win. He's responsible for Maxey's first employment, too, at age 10, sweeping up the Yates Ford car lot on Route 60.

Maxey says he "barely" graduated from high school and served in the Army during World War II. He went through basic training on the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California and practiced maneuvers in the Mojave Desert. He says his company crossed Europe with Gen. George S. Patton Jr., landed in Utah Beach and was in Nuremberg, Germany, at the end of the war.

Despite his close friendship with Yates, Maxey has always run as an independent. "It's worked all right so far," he says.

If he wins this next term, which, God willing, he'll complete when he's 94, he says he'll finally retire. S



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