Largely Misunderstood, Probate Work Still Sought After

By Bill Dries

“Regardless of the position that you're elected to, especially in the community I grew up in – the African-American community – they expect you to lead on issues that have nothing to do with Probate Court clerk."

– Clay Perry, Candidate for Probate Court clerk

It is the smallest office of the clerk’s positions on the May 5 primary ballot.

But because the Probate Court Clerk’s Office and the court's two divisions deal primarily with wills and estates, it might be the one office that begins with the simplest mission.

“How many people here are going to die?” Danny Kail asked a group of around 20 people at a Frayser Exchange Club

luncheon last month.

Kail is one of five candidates for the position in the Democratic primary.

Paul Boyd advances to the August county general election because he has no opposition in the GOP primary.

Republican incumbent Chris Thomas is leaving the clerk’s office after four terms to run for the Shelby County Commission.

Kail, an attorney whose career has included representing local labor unions, and Clay Perry, deputy administrator to the Shelby County Commission, are the two most active and visible candidates in the Democratic primary.

Also in the Democratic field is Sondra Becton, making her fourth bid for the office four years after she lost her job in the clerk’s office. As the Democratic nominee, Becton lost to Thomas in 2006 by 604 votes.

Annita Sawyer Hamilton, Thomas’s top assistant and a veteran of more than 30 years in the office, is also running in the primary along with Peggy Dobbins.


Kail wants the clerk’s office to do more to teach the public about living wills and other important probate matters.

“I’ve had to drive to Arkansas to give checks to ... ex-wives that they haven’t seen in 20 years," Kail said recently. "And then come back to Memphis and go around construction jobs to take up money for their burial. … You try to get a funeral home in town to hold a body.”

Perry sees the job as more basic, although he agrees most voters have no idea what the office does and that there should be some kind of educational effort.

Kail and Perry are both familiar faces in the local Democratic Party. Each is making his first bid for elected office after years of working in other campaigns.

Perry is a childhood friend of former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

He worked in Ford’s 1996 congressional campaign and became Ford’s district director – part of a younger generation of not only the Ford family, but also younger supporters schooled in the get-out-the-vote, blitz-type methods of former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr.

Kail’s one-time position on the local Democratic executive committee was an acknowledgement of the local party's labor roots. Kail was the attorney for union electricians and packed a portable manual typewriter in his car.

“Someone would be about dead at The MED. And I had a Smith Corona – a yellow one … and I would be out on the hood of the car typing out things because we didn’t have word processors,” he said. “I didn’t have a staff of people at the union hall to help me. I did a lot of it myself.”

Kail remembered someone seeing him pecking out paperwork outside the emergency room and asking derisively what kind of an attorney he was.

“I said, ‘A very accessible one,’” Kail remembered.

Perry acknowledges the elected position has a broader scope than simply being a clerk who happens to be elected.

But he differs with Kail on the scope.

“Regardless of the position that you’re elected to, especially in the community I grew up in – the African-American community – they expect you to lead on issues that have nothing to do with Probate Court clerk,” Perry said. “That’s the way it goes. People know what you do from 8 to 4:30. … Some of the people want to know what you are going to do after 4:30.”

Kail said he is also getting a broader message from voters who may not be as familiar with what the office does as the fact that Kail wants their votes.

He sums it up with a question he said he was asked at a recent campaign stop – “Are you going to embarrass us?”

"Our trust and confidence with taxpayers is really low," he said. "People pick up the paper everyday and (see politicians) abusing their discretion. ... They're tired of being embarassed."

His turn

Paul Boyd, the GOP nominee, who will meet the Democratic winner on Aug. 5, is also talking about new political leadership.

Like Kail and Perry, he’s worked in a lot of campaigns for other people.

“We live in a community that has been short-sighted for a number of years,” he said at a recent political gathering. “We’ve had all sorts of leadership in the city and the county and everyone’s fighting over blacks and whites and conservatives and liberals and inner city and outer county.

"Everybody’s so bogged down in these same old tired petty divisions. No one is looking to the future.”