Anita ChappellNewlyweds Brandon Reid Herron and Michelle (Meyers) Herron gaze at each other as Watauga County magistrate Anita Chappell officiates and witnesses Jessica Nichols, left, and Mary Whitney look on.
conducted more than 800 weddings in her
27 years as a magistrate.
After 27 years as a Watauga County magistrate, Anita Chappell
is tempted to say she's
seen it all.But experience has taught her
to resist the temptation at all times.
"Every time I think nothing can surprise me anymore," she
said, "somebody will walk through the door with something I've never seen before.And it's generally not a good thing."She
laughed at the thought.It's been a good run, she
said, conscious of the fact that so few people are lucky enough to hold a job for so long where novelty is an everyday occurrence.Chappell
is the most experienced magistrate on staff at the local office.She began her career with county government at the age of 17, in the county clerk's office, moving over to the magistrate's quarters at the tender age of 20.
And if every day brings a new puzzle for solving, Chappell
said the challenges of the job have changed little over the years.
"The volume of work has changed tremendously," she
said."But the job's the same, and the issues we deal with are the same."
The issues most often involve people with trouble on their minds.It's a sad fact, said Chappell
, that her
office is a clearinghouse for strife.For the most part, magistrates handle the nuts and bolts of the justice system, setting bonds, issuing warrants, and putting people in jail.
"Most of the people who come through here are going through a crisis of some sort," Chappell
said."Many may have been wronged.Many have wronged someone else.And, many times, the families are in crisis as well."
"Sometimes when I'm getting ready to come to work, I'll actually say a short prayer that I'll be able to help somebody," Chappell
said."Then there are days when we have a bad day, just like anybody else, and may not have as much patience as others."Chappell
found that the best she
can offer the troubled souls she
encounters every day is a respectful demeanor and a compassionate ear.
"There's a lot of listening going on in here," she
And no matter how sad the tale, Chappell
said, the magistrates are obliged to follow the law.
"Some people leave disappointed," she
said, "even angry.Some leave understanding; even when I generally haven't told them what they wanted to hear, they understand."
On the day of this interview, a sheriff's deputy has delivered to Chappell
a young man in handcuffs.He's
a lanky kid with a patchy, adolescent beard, slouching shoulder and a forlorn face.
The deputy explained that the boy has been driving back and forth between Bristol, Tenn. and work without a valid driver's license.Making things worse, he's
allegedly failed to appear at a couple of court hearings on the same charge.And to avoid going to jail for that, the deputy said the teen had been giving a false name to the officers who've stopped him.Chappell
asks the young offender if he
didn't guess he
was going to have to go to jail for giving false information to an officer.
"Yes, ma'm," he
Chappell's face says she
doesn't like to do it.He's
a polite young man who's been making foolish choices that hurt no one more than himself.But he's
got to go to jail now.There's really no other possibility.Chappell
is exasperated as the deputy leads his
prisoner across the street to the Watauga County Detention Center
.But such moments are common in her
line of work.She
tried to explain the complexities of separating out the poor choices of others and her
own responsibility for upholding the law.
"I don't want to say I don't feel some responsibility," she
It's been a few years since she'd checked the numbers, Chappell
said, but at last count she'd married more than 800 couples.
"Somebody will see me in the grocery store and say 'Hey!You did my wedding!,'" Chappell
said."That's a really good feeling."
Weddings have also provided some of her
most colorful memories.Like the time the guy played the wedding march on a collection of soda bottles.Or the day the bride and groom rode up on motorcycles.The bride, who'd arrived in riding leather, disappeared into the women's restroom only to emerge a while later in a full-blown wedding dress.Chappell
led the couple through their vows, made out the license, and watched the bride go back in the restroom and come back out in her
leather again.The bride and groom then rode away.
As chance would have it, on the afternoon of this interview, a young couple has come in to have Chappell
marry them as well.
A short time later, in front of two giddy witnesses Herron and Meyers stand before Chappell
, speak their vows, kiss, sign the papers, and they're off.
It's almost 6 p.m., near the end of Chappell's
12-hour shift, and a very good way to finish the day.
Like the young soldier she's
just married, Chappell
has an important date coming up in July, as well.She's
got to decide whether to retire, or put in another year or two in the job she's
come to know so well.
It's not an easy decision, she
admits , too much to do, too many loose ends to tie.She'll make up her
mind soon, she
said, but just how soon she
can't say.She's just completed two years as president of the North Carolina Magistrates Association and is currently serving as past president and as a member of the board of directors. Her proudest accomplishment as president, she said, was helping to draft and pass a bill through the General Assembly changing the rules of tenure for magistrates.
Magistrates are an appointed position, and until the rules changed, their term lasted only two years.That meant no job security whatsoever, Chappell
said, as every two years might mean a trip to the unemployment line.
The new rules extend the term to four years after the initial two-year appointment.
Though turnover has generally not been a problem in the Watauga County magistrate's office, Chappell
said, it has been a persistent problem throughout the state.
To be considered for a magistrate's position, candidates must have either a two-year degree along with four years in a related field, or a four-year degree.It was becoming more and more difficult to attract and keep well-qualified candidates when job security was such an issue.Chappell
hopeful the rule change will help alleviate that problem while attracting more qualified people to the field.
would be the first to tell them, it's one of those rare jobs where the challenges are many, and surprises are an everyday affair.