Since the mid-1990s, if you said the name “Vera” to just about anyone in Hamden, they would know exactly who you meant. Vera Morrison was Hamden’s town clerk until last November 28th, when she turned the office keys over to newly-elected Town Clerk Karimah Mickens after having served longer than anyone since Ellsworth Warner ended his 28-year stint as Hamden town clerk in 1904. On her last working day in office, Vera shared her thoughts on her remarkable 26-year stint as Town Clerk of the Town of Hamden.
First elected in 1995, when Lillian Clayman won the last of her three terms as mayor, Vera has served during the administrations of five more mayors and one acting mayor, “It’s been an interesting road, serving with so many people like that," she remarked, "and they’ve all been so different. Every day was different – no two days alike.”
Vera was quite adamant that the last thing on her mind was ever getting into politics. But after having been active with the PTA and in her local civic association for several years, she was encouraged to run for, and won, the vacant 4th District council seat in 1993.
Two years later, when four-term Town Clerk Nancy Hurlburt was retiring, Mayor Clayman urged Vera to be her running mate. As Vera put in, “I didn’t know zippa-dee-do about the job,” but Clayman convinced her that it wasn’t much different than what she had been dealing with as a school teacher. Only, as Vera put it, “the customers were a little older, and sometimes not as well behaved.”
But, it wasn't long before Vera had a firm handle on her new responsibilities, and she handled them very well. Indeed, so well that when her mayoral running mate lost re-election in 1997 by just over 200 votes, Vera won re-election by more than 2,000 votes. In fact, in another mayoral election in the 2000’s, the opposition party wisely cross-endorsed her, something she said was a huge compliment to her and her outstanding office staff.
When it came to Vera doing her job, there were never any strings on her either. "I always felt that mine was the voice they needed to hear and not necessarily wanted to hear," she said. "I wasn’t appointed, and I wasn’t hired. So I could be that other voice, and I’ve tried to maintain that all these years.”
There are 169 town clerks in Connecticut, and together they have a very strong association. Vera has always believed that autonomy is an absolute necessity for the town clerk’s position. That autonomy can be maintained only if the town clerk is an elected position versus an appointment. In one nearby community where the town clerk is a political appointment, there have been eight or nine town clerks during the span of Vera’s tenure.
Vera said that if anyone wanted to “boot” her out, it would have to be the voters. She recalled the time someone actually tried to get her impeached because she refused to conduct a referendum based on 200 signatures. The state later confirmed that such a move would have been illegal under Hamden's mayor-council form of government.
Vera and John at 2016 HFD retirement dinner
Vera and her husband John came to Hamden in 1980 from upstate New York. John was working on a grant-funded research project at Yale, heading the Wing Short-Title Catalogue project, creating a catalogue and index for all the books printed in English from 1641 to 1700, which was his field. They expected to be in Hamden only for the duration of John's two three-year grants. Little did they know at the time that their Hamden stay would be just a wee bit longer.
John and Vera had met in college in the 1960s, when they both were in the same Biology class lab group. When their relationship eventually blossomed into thoughts of marriage, Vera’s parents urged her to wait until she graduated from college. But time and tide wait for no one, and during the summer between their junior and senior years she and John secretly eloped to Niagara Falls.
Shortly thereafter, Vera’s mom saw a letter for Vera in the family's daily mail delivery. It was from the hall of records of the city of Buffalo, with the notation “License Enclosed.” Mom remarked to her husband, “Hank, the only licenses you get from that kind of place are fishing and marriage licenses.” And Hank did not fish.
The cat was out of the bag. Not long thereafter, John and Vera had another wedding, this time with all the bells and whistles. They now have been married for 55 years - with two anniversaries.
Book No. 1 - 1786
Vera believes that one of her most significant achievements as Hamden Town Clerk has been the preservation of some of the town's earliest documents.
John was a college professor of Western Civilization. He couldn’t believe Hamden's original ancient documents were still sitting on the shelves. He prompted her to get those books of Hamden records restored and preserved.
Nancy Hurlburt had already done Book No. 1, which starts in 1786. After lobbying the various mayors and Legislative Councils, Vera was able to finally obtain funds to retore and preserve the first 60 books of records. Land records that go back to 1786 are now digitized and online. So are Town meeting minutes. Vera says they are now good for the next 500 years.
"We also created the vault at the Government Center and took much of the equipment out of the old town hall. We now have a vault within a vault. Enough room for quite a while."
One of the more enjoyable aspects of her job was working with school kids. “It was such a kick!” She loved talking about the Sleeping Giant and preserving our green areas. Once, when she told a group of second graders about all the documents that were recorded in the town clerk's office, one of the kids remarked, “You know everything about everybody. Are you the FBI?”
Another high point in her career as town clerk resulted from her desire to help Hamden veterans. Her dad had been a B29 pilot during World War II. While accompanying him in 2002, Vera was able to meet six of his WWII B29 crew at Wright-Patterson AFB. When he passed away in 2008, she decided to get involved with helping Hamden's veterans to visit war memorials in the nation's capital.
Paying her own way as a veteran's "guardian," Vera accompanied Hamden veterans on flights to Washington D.C. that were paid for them by AmericanWarrior.org, an organization founded by Chris Coutu of Norwich, which raised money to fly veterans there to visit the various war memorials.
All told, Vera went on seven American Warrior flights. When arriving in Washington, she would meet with the son of her dad's tailgunner, who worked in the capital. The two of them would each take a wheelchair. On one of her last flights, she accompanied Hamden resident and WWII veteran Fred Baselice, then 96, “I’ll take care of you in the air," he told Vera, who hates to fly, "if you’ll take care of me on the ground.” Vera became Fred's "wheelchair person" for the tour.
Vera is extremely grateful for the many donations received for those flights. Over the course of the seven flights, with the help of many Hamden service groups as well as the Hamden Fire Department I.A.F.F. affiliate Local 2687, she was able to raise $15,000 for these flights.
Vera's identity for the past 26 years has been that of Hamden Town Clerk. Her daughter recently told her that she now needed to find another identity. As her final term was winding down, she got a little choked up during a police department swearing-in ceremony. A retired police officer friend told her that she ought to go into intelligence gathering because she is so personable and adept at getting to know people in such short order. "He said I'd be good at gathering intel." And when she asked her friend who’d she work for, his answer reminded her of her earlier encounter with that 2nd grader who said Vera "knew everything about everybody." The retired cop told Vera she should join the FBI.
Vera chuckled and said that she doubted she pass the agility test. But lately she has been approached by several people trying to lure her into other pursuits, but she confesses that she really wants to spend more time with her family.
After her 26 years as town clerk, what will she miss most? Vera said she always loved working with her staff through the years, and expressed high praise for them and the outstanding work they performed to keep up with the many responsibilities required of them. She will also miss the interaction she enjoyed with the public, and especially with the kids. A vocal fan of Hamden's public safety departments, she will miss Hamden's dedicated cops and firefighters. Always a friend of the fire department, she never missed an opportunity to praise the assistance rendered to her and her family on several occasions.
In the next century, Vera Morrison's many contributions to the preservation of Hamden history will undoubtedly be judged as significant. Her remarkable 26-year tenure as Hamden's Town Clerk, from 1995 to 2021, is historic all by itself.
David G. Johnson
Hamden Municipal Historian
One of Vera's last swearing-in ceremonies was that of Asst. Supt. of Apparatus John Pucillo Jr. for the fire department - November 22, 2021