Profile: Power behind the scenes
Published 4:00 pm Monday, March 10, 2014
By Stephanie Brumfield
One day every year, Kim Melton shows up to work at the Shelby County Courthouse dressed like a clown. Decked out in blue, she wears her hair in pigtails and sports pink shoes and striped socks. Her face is covered with painted freckles, clown eyelashes and a shiny, red nose. And she looks forward to it every year.
“I love adoption day,” Melton says. “We dress up like clowns, and we have a carnival. We have popcorns and snow cones and cakes and balloons. We do it in our courtroom and set everything up out in the hallway. We set the adoptions 30 minutes apart and set them all day long.”
Melton, chief clerk for Shelby County Probate Judge Jim Fuhrmeister, says there are a lot of great days in probate court, but the annual adoption days, which are typically held during National Adoption Week in November, are her favorite. All day long the probate court approves uncontested adoptions and helps people create new families.
“Everybody is happy on that day,” she says.
But it’s not all popcorn and balloons in probate court. In between adoptions and marriages, Melton and the probate staff are also in charge of hearing cases about incapacitated adults who need someone to manage their affairs, minors who need to be appointed new guardians and mentally ill persons who need to be committed to facilities.
The worst days for Melton are the days when the court hears contested guardianships or conservatorships, or cases involving family disputes over who will take care of a child or an elderly person.
“Typically, you’re dealing with an elderly person whose family is fighting over their money or where they’re going to live – either in a nursing home or not in a nursing home,” Melton says.
“The strife between families is just hard, I guess because my family is so close. It’s hard to see sisters and brothers torn apart because of money. (The elderly person) will cry sometimes because they’re seeing their families fight over them. To me, that’s just gut-wrenching,” she adds.
But it’s this dichotomy – both in the types of cases she sees in probate court and the emotions they carry with them – that has kept her at her job for the last 14 years, working with Fuhrmeister in some capacity since the early 1990s.
“I like probate because you’re dealing directly with people,” she says. “Sometimes it’s their happiest moments, and sometimes it’s their worst moments. I just like being able to help people.”
From grocery store to courtroom
Born in Kentucky, Melton moved to Shelby County when she was just 4 years old and has lived here ever since. As a child, she grew up in the Indian Valley subdivision, eventually graduating from Alliance Christian School although she attended Pelham High School until her senior year. She moved to Helena in 1990 and has lived there since.
As a high school junior, Melton worked as a cashier at Piggly Wiggly, and she never imagined her next employer would be a law firm.
At the time, Melton’s mother was having her will drawn up at what would later become Jim and Patricia Fuhrmeister’s law firm. She heard they were looking for a receptionist.
“She mentioned she had a daughter who might be interested in working for lawyers,” Melton says. “I went and interviewed, and they hired me off of the checkout line. I was with them until I came (to the courthouse).”
She remembers her first day at the law office like it was yesterday.
“When I started, I walked in, and there was nobody there,” she says. “I got there, the door was unlocked, nobody was there to tell me anything and the telephone started ringing. So I picked it up and just started.”
She had a similar experience her first day on the job as chief clerk for Patricia Fuhrmeister, who was elected probate judge in 1992. Melton began working as Patricia’s chief clerk in 1999 after long-time-clerk Pat Sewell retired from position. Minutes after Melton arrived for her first day of work in 1999, a couple walked in and wanted to get married.
“I’ve always just kind of been thrown in, and you just do what you can do,” she says.
At the law firm – which changed names several times but is now Allison, May & Kimbrough L.L.C. – Melton started as a receptionist and gradually became the closing secretary, then a paralegal, and finally a catch-all office manager. She earned her paralegal degree from Samford University by taking night classes part-time while working at the firm.
The Fuhrmeisters joined the firm in the early 1990s as lawyers, where they met Melton. When the chief clerk position came open in 1999, Jim Fuhrmeister says he and Patricia knew she was perfect for the job. When Melton presented him with cases at the law firm, Jim says he’d look at her and say, “What do you think?”
“And she’d always be right,” he says. “She is very smart and very conscientious.”
Melton worked as Patricia Fuhrmeister’s chief clerk until she died in 2008, which is when Jim Fuhrmeister took over the position, keeping Melton as his chief clerk.
Although most of Melton’s work is still behind-the-scenes, she has gained a lot more power since her start at the law firm. As chief clerk, Melton has all of the power of the probate judge – the only thing she can’t do is decide contested cases. Excluding contested cases only, Melton says she can sign Jim Fuhrmeister’s name to anything, checks included.
“It helps the probate court to be able to do that because I can cover a lot of things when he’s not here. But you want somebody you can trust in that position, and that’s why if a new probate judge came in, he or she could choose that person,” says Melton, referring to the fact that the chief clerk is always appointed by the current judge.
“I feel honored because I know you want somebody in that position who you can trust, and to me, that he would choose me is really special.”
Fuhrmeister says he feels lucky to work with Melton, too.
“She knows me as well as anybody from a professional standpoint,” he says. “She knows how I think, how I’m going to see things that are presented to me … She is absolutely trustworthy. She is very local to me and to the people of Shelby County. I am very, very lucky to have her with me.”
To say that Melton has worked with Jim Fuhrmeister for a long time would be an understatement. But she has an even longer working relationship with Shelby County commissioner and chairperson Lindsey Allison, one of the three original lawyers at the firm where Melton worked. Melton still sees Allison regularly at the courthouse, and she also keeps in touch with Randy May, who also started with Melton at the firm.
Speaking of Allison, May, Fuhrmeister and all of the other attorneys who have worked closely with her since 1985, she says, “Truly, they are like family to me.”
When she went on dates, they had opinions about the people she dated, just like older siblings would, she says. Fuhrmeister said they would give her a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” when she would bring her dates to the law office.
“We all liked Brett,” says Fuhrmeister, referring to Melton’s husband whom she married in 1992.
When her colleagues started families, she spent a lot of time with their children, baby-sitting and picking them up after school.
“She changed diapers and made formula, if that gives you a hint,” Allison says.
When Melton got married, they were at her wedding, and May’s children were her flower girl and ring bearer. When she went into labor, she called Jim Fuhrmeister. When her children were born, her colleagues were some of the first people she invited to see them. John, her son, is now 18 and attending Jefferson State Community College, and Laura, her daughter, is 13 and an eighth grader at Helena Middle School.
Speaking of her colleagues, she says, “It wouldn’t bother me at all if they showed up to my house for thanksgiving dinner. I would think of them as family.”
And Melton isn’t alone.
“She is family,” Allison says. “I am proudest to see her in her current position. I always knew she was smart – and I mean real smart – and she is a hard worker. Judge Fuhrmeister is lucky to have her in that position.”
As a parent, Fuhrmeister says he finds himself going to Melton to talk about parenting issues.
“And she does the same with me,” he says. “It’s a real treasure.”
The face behind elections
Aside from being able to work alongside people she cares about, another of Melton’s great loves is election season. Fuhrmeister, as probate judge, is the chief election official for the county, and because of that Melton says election years are extremely busy.
“Elections are fun,” Melton says. “They’re very harried and are probably the most stressful thing we do because it’s under such a time limit, and you really have to think on your feet because you have to solve those problems right then when they come in.”
During election years, on top of its regular work, the probate office staff does everything from testing the voting machines to appointing poll workers, training poll workers, helping with the ballots and setting the ballot styles. Melton says it’s “slow at the beginning and then all of a sudden that last month is just crazy.”
“We run every ballot style through every auto mark machine to make sure that it works properly before it leaves the building. We do the public test. We have to proof the ballots. We have to inventory the ballots to make sure every precinct has the right ballots,” she added.
“We just have a lot to do in that last month that is very tedious and that you have to be sure is correct. You cannot have the wrong ballots at the wrong polling places.”
And with such a presence in the community – visiting every polling location in the county prior to election day – she says it’s easier to be really involved with the community than it would be in other courts. In addition to speaking at area schools, Melton is known to eat lunch at the Pea Ridge Senior Center, and she serves on a host of civic and community organizations, including the Chilton-Shelby Mental Health Board, the Helena High School Band Booster Club and the Alabama Chief Clerks Association. She is also entering her ninth year as her daughter’s Girl Scout troop leader, and she is a 2011 graduate of Leadership Shelby County.
While Melton says Fuhrmeister makes community involvement easier because he encourages his staff to be involved, he says the same thing about her, noting that she has what he calls a “servant heart.”
“She makes my work so much easier. She makes sure things in the office are running, which allows me to work on more global issues that are not in the defined duties of the probate judge,” he says.
Community outreach is also easier, according to Melton, because of the nature of her job.
“The day before an election, somebody from the probate office is at every polling location checking on it,” she says. “We’re just dealing with the community more on a daily basis.”
Melton also gets to know the community by performing marriage ceremonies, many of which have been for people she’s known. She’s performed ceremonies for county employees, parents of her children’s friends and even her brother.
When asked if she thinks she’ll stay in her current position, Melton says she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I’ll retire here. Absolutely. There’s no question in my mind as long as the probate judge will keep me,” she says.
For her, it’s about “staying in the background and doing little things” for the judge and anybody else who walks through the office door.
“On a daily basis, we might have somebody come in and say, ‘My spouse died last week. What do I do?’ We can’t give legal advice, and we have to refer them to attorneys and things, but we can help guide them on what to do, and we can offer them encouraging words.
“And sometimes that’s what somebody needs. Sometimes, somebody just needs to know that somebody cares. We can’t give them legal advice, but by the time they leave we want them to leave feeling like we’ve done everything we could do to help them, that we haven’t just turned them away, and hopefully they’ll feel a little bit better. And that’s why I like it. I like that I can try to make somebody’s day just a little bit better.”