Terry Wester is ending her long career as an Ozaukee County deputy clerk of courts and the face that greets citizens at the Justice Center
For decades, Terry Wester has been the face of the Ozaukee County Justice Center.
Hers is one of the first faces people see when they visit the center, whether to appear in court, file legal papers, get married or divorced, pay a fine or child support or check in for jury duty.
Wester, whose workspace is the front desk, serves not just as a clerk in the clerk of courts office but also is the de facto receptionist for the building.
It’s not an easy job. Her clerical duties are interrupted by the legions of attorneys and stressed out people who’ve been called into court or want to find justice after being wronged.
“When you’re at the front and center, you have to be able to multi-task and deal with being interrupted all the time,” Wester said. “You see all different kinds of people at not the best times in their lives.
“Basically, they want you to listen to them, to treat them with respect and explain things in a way they can understand. They don’t understand the way the courts work.”
But soon, Wester won’t be a witness to those stressful times. She’s retiring Friday, Feb. 3, after 41 years on the job.
Wester, 60, has been on hand through a plethora of traffic, criminal and civil cases throughout her career — the most notable, she said, were cases involving murders or celebrities.
Possibly the most memorable case she said she experienced in her years on the job was the 1991 trial of Dennis Marsh for the murder of his wife Cinthia.
Marsh killed his wife in a Saukville apartment during a standoff with police on Oct. 8, 1990.
“It was heartbreaking,” Wester said, noting that Cinthia Marsh had been in the clerk of court’s office months earlier to obtain a restraining order against her husband.
“You think that’s going to protect somebody, but that showed it doesn’t always work.”
Not all cases are as dramatic. Most are relatively mundane, at least to the clerks in the office. But to the people involved, they are the most important thing right then, Wester said.
That, she said, is why they aren’t always on their best behavior.
“I realize that, and I always try to treat them the way I want to be treated,” she said.
And, she said,some people have come in after the fact to apologize for the way they acted.
Some offbeat cases have been heard throughout the years — and some unusual people have stopped by as well, Wester said.
She declined to get into the anecdotes, saying she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But Wester did recall two traffic cases in which the defendants decided to protest their convictions by paying them with coins.
In one case decades ago, a man brought a red coaster wagon filled with burlap bags of coins to pay his bill. In the other, which occurred not long ago, a person brought the coins to the Justice Center in a red Sendik’s grocery bag.
“You have to accept it,” Wester said. “It’s U.S. tender.”
In each case, she said, the deputy clerks counted the money, then brought it to the bank to have to checked with a counting machine.
“In both cases, the people were short,” Wester said — in the most recent case, by $5.06.
She also recalled one person who mailed an English leather box filled with pennies to pay the fine for their winter parking ticket — Wester couldn’t remember if the fine was $5 or $10.
“You think, how much did it cost them to send it,” she said.
One of the most rewarding experiences Wester had on the job had nothing to do with a court case.
It came in 2010, when a young woman from Portal, Inc. in Grafton came to work in the clerk of courts office and Wester was asked to be her mentor.
The woman worked in the office for 2-1/2 years. They became good friends, and remain friends today, even through the woman left the clerk of courts office and today is employed doing clerical work.
“She’s someone who has changed my life forever,” Wester said. “Thanks to her and her job coach, I was inspired to volunteer at Portal.”
In fact, Wester’s life has been filled with service.
Wester’s father Ambrose was employed at the Ozaukee County Register of Deeds office for decades and served as a City of Port Washington alderman.
“I remember him always enjoying his job serving the citizens of the county,” she said.
So it wasn’t surprising that a few months after she graduated from Port Washington High School in 1975, Wester applied for a job at the clerk of courts.
She was hired by Clerk of Courts John “Pat” Rooney for the job, a one-year position funded through a federal grant that the county later elected to continue.
She started work on Sept. 8, 1975.
Through the years, Wester said, she’s “had to relearn” her job numerous times as the world changed.
For example, when she started in the office, she used an electric typewriter, not a computer. The filing system was manual, with people looking up the case number in an index file so clerks could go into a back room and find the actual paper court records. Today, the records are digital and accessible via the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website.
There were only two court branches — presided over by Judges Charles Larson and Warren Grady — where today there are three. Two judges from Washington County, Milton Meister and J. Tom Merriam traveled to Ozaukee County regularly to help out until the third branch was formed in 1979.
And back then, the Justice Center didn’t exist. When Wester started, the clerk of courts office was located on the second floor of what is today the Ozaukee County Administration Center in downtown Port Washington.
Through the years, Wester has been a courtroom clerk, issued receipts for payments received in the office, processed passports, initiated new case filings and been the office’s customer service representative.
Throughout her career, she’s worked for six clerks of court, eight judges — 10 if you count the two Washington County judges — and three court commissioners.
“Don’t ask me how many co-workers I’ve had,” Wester said. “They’re too numerous to mention.”
Those co-workers have become more than just people she shares an office with, she added. They’re family.
“They keep me in line,” she said, laughing. “How much trouble can you get into when you’re behind bars and there are armed guards at the door?”
Wester said she opted to stay in the clerk of courts office for all these years because she found the job interesting and she enjoyed helping people.
Now, she’s looking forward to a change of pace. Wester said she plans to relax, reconnect with old friends and co-workers and perhaps get a part-time job working with people with disabilities.
“It’s been an honor to serve the citizens of Ozaukee County for 41 years,” she said. “Now, I’m just going to enjoy life.”
Image Information: Terry Wester was surrounded last week by many of her co-workers as she prepared for her retirement on Friday, Feb. 3. Photo by Sam Arendt