Friends, colleagues insist on helping Bill Hambelton celebrate retirement
Ozark County Collector Bill Hambelton is having a retirement party Thursday – whether or not he wants one.
Deputy Collector Darla Sullivan – who has worked with Hambelton for years and who steps into the job Friday, March 1, having been elected in November – said Bill warned her he didn’t want that kind of fuss. So Darla suffered in silence, secretly fielding calls from friends, relatives and other county collectors and officials who wanted to know what was being planned to celebrate Bill’s retirement after 16 years as Ozark County’s collector.
Bill learned of the plan Monday morning when the secret spilled out, without a word.
“I was upstairs [in the courthouse] Monday morning, introducing the new help, and I said, ‘This is my last Monday, and with any luck I can slip out without any fanfare,’” Bill told the Times later that day. “But then Becki [Strong, the long-time circuit clerk and recorder] turned and looked at me with those big blue eyes, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. Something’s up.’ After that, Darla had to fess up.”
Darla told Bill, “I’m sorry. It just took on a life of its own.”
Knowing her office mate as she does, Darla has declared the party an all-day, come-and-go, drop-in thing (“because she knew if she set a certain time, I’d find a way not to be here,” Bill quipped). Everyone is invited to stop by the collector’s office anytime Thursday to wish Bill well (except around noon, when the other county collectors and computer programmer from Springfield are coming to take him to lunch).
The courthouse office below his dad’s
An Ozark County native, born in 1952 in the late Dr. M. J. Hoerman’s office in what is now the Ozark County Health Department, Bill is the son of the late Fern Robbins Hambelton and her husband, Bill, who served as Ozark County Circuit Clerk and Recorder for 38 years.
The senior Hambelton’s office was directly above the basement office where his son now works as collector. Bill’s dad left office in 1994, declining to run again after he fell and broke his hip. He wasn’t able to finish the last two weeks of his final term, Bill said. He died 10 years later, in 2004. Fern Hambelton died in 1992.
The Hambelton family lived in the Luna community, and young Bill and his siblings attended the one-room school there. “I was the highest and lowest student in my class,” Bill said. That’s because he was the only student in his class taught by teacher Wolf Clark, followed by Evelyn Morrison.
Bill was in fifth grade when the school system consolidated and he began riding the bus into Gainesville Elementary, “scared stiff,” he said.
He graduated from Gainesville High School in 1970 and went to work – and to school. Twenty-one years later, in 1991, he would graduate from what is now Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in administrative management. Another 12 years after that, in 2003, he graduated from Arkansas State University with an MBA.
But before the college degrees, there were 12 years of working at what is now Baxter Healthcare (“the lab”) in Mountain Home, Arkansas. And during some of that time, while he was working third shift at the lab, he lived back on Pine Creek at Luna and attended daytime classes in West Plains for a cosmetology license.
In 1984, he bought the Franchester Beauty Salon on the east side of the square in Gainesville. He worked in the salon while also taking 90 credit hours of college classes at what is now the MSU campus in West Plains. In 1989 he sold the salon to Gay Strong and moved to Springfield to finish his degree on the university’s main campus while continuing to work in the salon on weekends.
During that time he met Patsy Hardgrave while she was teaching in Rolla. They were married in March 1991, the same year Bill finished his bachelor’s degree.
They both taught for a year at Phillips Junior College in Springfield. Then Bill left teaching to sell insurance for Farm Bureau – until a recession hit.
In 1995, Bill, Patsy and their son, Zachary, who was about 18 months old then – moved back to Gainesville, and Bill bought back the salon from Gay Strong. Soon, while working at the salon, he was taking college classes again, working toward his MBA. He earned the degree in 2003, the same year he sold the salon (again) and filed as a candidate for collector.
Finally ... only one job
The 16 years he has served as collector have been the only years “it’s felt like I’ve only had one job,” he said.
Meanwhile, Patsy continued her teaching career. After moving to Ozark County, she taught at Lutie and then at Cotter, Arkansas, before moving to Gainesville High School and continuing there until complications from cancer forced her to retire in September 2017.
She died Feb. 8, 2018, and around that time, when the filing period opened for the 2018 primary, Bill decided not to run for re-election. He encouraged long-time Deputy Collector Darla to run and is confidently turning over the collector’s job to her Friday – although they both say they’ll probably be working through the weekend to wind up final figures pertaining to the end of the county’s fiscal year.
Bill says the best thing about being county collector has been “just getting to see and know the people of Ozark County.” Sometimes, he said, “it feels like we work with them closer than anyone except maybe their doctor, because we’re in their pocketbooks. They talk to us about their money. When people are having financial trouble, we may be the first ones they talk to because they don’t want to lose their property.”
And then there are those magical, unexpected moments of celebration...
“I had a single mom standing here, crying, while she paid her taxes. But she said, ‘I never thought I would own my own home. So these are tears of joy,’” Bill said.
The hardest situations were “when people lost family members and we were trying to help them work through the mess.”
The personal situations sometime posed the biggest challenges, but the numbers themselves were something Bill has enjoyed. “I’ve always liked the numbers. The bookwork is the easiest part of the job for me,” he said.
In his retirement, Bill is looking forward to “just doing things I want to do,” he said. He’s also looking forward to being able to spend more time with his son, Zach, who holds an associate degree from MSU-WP and a bachelor’s from College of the Ozarks. He works in Springfield at the Great Southern Bank call center. “He loves taking care of people and helping them with their problems,” Bill said.
He has enjoyed the collector’s job, but now Bill’s ready to move on. “It’s truly been a pleasure serving the people of Ozark County,” he said. “But now I think it’s time for me to do something fun.”