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A Tumultuous Year

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 11/20/20

Fewer than 40 men—and one woman—have served as Sullivan County Clerk in the years since the county's formation in 1809, and four of them held the office in less than a year during a tumultuous …

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A Tumultuous Year

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Fewer than 40 men—and one woman—have served as Sullivan County Clerk in the years since the county's formation in 1809, and four of them held the office in less than a year during a tumultuous period in 1953 and 1954.

Interestingly, there has not been such turnover in the office before or since, even in the early days of the county's existence, when under the New York State Constitution in effect at the time, County Clerks were appointed every year. The position would not become an elected one until November of 1822, when a number of county offices—including County Clerk and Sheriff—were put before the voters for the first time.

In that first Clerk's election, John Patterson Jones, who along with his brother Samuel Frisbee Jones had founded Monticello - Samuel was also particularly instrumental in the formation of the county and in the designation of Monticello as the County Seat— became the first elected County Clerk, just as he had been the first man appointed to the position in 1809.

For many years after that first election, the Clerk's office was a three-year term, and Jones-- as well as each of the next five men to hold the office— served just one term. It was not until Hervy W. Howell was re-elected in 1843 that a Sullivan County Clerk succeeded himself.

Still, it took a special set of circumstances for the rapid turnover to take place that occurred in 1953.

Emil Motl, a Monticello architect, was a six-term supervisor of the town of Thompson, and was serving as Chairman of the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors when he decided to run for County Clerk in November of 1944. Running as a Republican, he was elected on the slogan, “He knows the county's business.”

Motl was re-elected in 1947, despite having to halt his campaign when his three-year old grandson died following a hernia operation, and again in 1950, and was expected to seek yet another term in November of 1953. His untimely death on February 19, 1953, however, started in motion the series of events that led to the temporary revolving door in the Clerk's office.

Shortly after Motl's death, Governor Thomas E. Dewey appointed longtime Deputy County Clerk and prominent Republican J. Maxwell Knapp of Hurleyville to serve in the post until the end of the year. Knapp, a well-known attorney in the county, had previously been County Clerk from 1920 to 1923, prior to serving in the New York State Assembly. He had also served as special County Judge for a time.

He had been appointed Deputy County Clerk in 1939, and was 64-years old at the time of his appointment by Dewey. With the appointment came the expectation that he would carry the Republican banner in the November election for Clerk.

Knapp's health had not been good for some time, however, and it rapidly deteriorated soon after he took office. He decided to resign effective September 4, 1953, and he died just a few days later. Upon his death, his Deputy Clerk, Arthur N. Myers of Narrowsburg was appointed County Clerk for the remainder of the year.

But Myers lost the 1953 election to retired State Trooper Robert J. Flynn, who assumed office in January of 1954, making him the fourth man to hold the position in less than a year.

Robert Flynn was re-elected in 1956, but suffered a fatal heart attack while watching television at home in June of 1958. Governor W. Averell Harriman appointed Flynn's widow, Millicent C. Shadt Flynn to replace him, and she was elected to the post that November. She was the first—and thus far, the only - woman to ever hold the office in Sullivan County.

Millicent C. Flynn served as Sullivan County Clerk until her retirement in 1973. Her 15 years in the office provided a stability and institutional memory that had been severely tested not long before. Curiously, her successor in the position, Francis “Stretch” Hanofee, died in September of 1974, just eight months after taking office.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.

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