Photo by Tim Stepien
By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge is bracing itself for a case of institutional amnesia the likes of which few communities have ever seen.
On Jan. 29, Town Clerk Karen Hancsak is retiring after 35 years as an employee. When she walks out the door for the last time, she takes with her a cache of knowledge about Ocean Ridge that is irreplaceable.
Not only does Hancsak know where all the proverbial bodies are buried in the town, she can tell you who dug the graves, where they bought their shovels, whether they paid with cash or credit, and who picked up the check for dinner afterward.
“She constitutes our ‘institutional memory’ when it comes to the history of ordinances, agenda items, elections and budgets these past three decades,” says Commissioner Richard Lucibella. “Perhaps more than any other employee, she has shaped the culture of our staff with her professionalism and willingness to always go the extra mile.”
There has been a recurring event at town meetings over the years that, in some circles, is known as “the Hancsakian moment.”
It goes like this: A commissioner gets stumped on some obscure historical detail and looks for help from colleagues on the dais. The mayor and vice mayor shrug and kick it to the town manager, who passes to the town attorney. Nothing.
Then, as one, they all look to the clerk’s seat, where invariably Hancsak has her hand raised and the answer waiting.
“Karen was the first person I met in the Town Hall over 20 years ago when I wanted to get a new seawall,” says Mayor Geoff Pugh. “She was knowledgeable, helpful and kind — quite a contrast to most building departments. Among other things, she has been the town’s historian and oracle. She knows the code backward, forward and sideways. I for one will truly miss her.”
In her 35 years, Hancsak has worked with 25 commissioners, nine town managers, four police chiefs and four deputy clerks. She has served as interim town manager twice.
“When I started out, the number of children in town was probably less than 10,” Hancsak says. “It was more of a retirement community and more seasonal. Now Ocean Ridge is more of a business, working community with lots of families. And we’re all built out.”
She watched the 9/11 attacks from Town Hall, and also the Challenger disaster. She can tell you how Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne pummeled Town Hall in 2004 and blew off the steeple, and how a small plane crashed into the facade of the new Town Hall while it was being built in 2008 — and how the pilot walked away unscathed. She and former Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi picked out the furnishings for the new hall.
“We went shopping looking for carpeting, furniture and appliances,” Hancsak says. “It almost seemed like we were a couple for a while.”
Hancsak succeeded legendary Town Clerk Rita Taylor, now with Gulf Stream, as Ocean Ridge clerk in 1990, and things were stormy from the outset. A month after getting sworn into office, Hancsak had to handle a dead-heat election between Commissioner Vera Klein and challenger Weldon Yeager, who tied with 269 votes.
An unflappable Hancsak enlisted a Boynton Beach employee who happened to be in Town Hall to pull a name out of a blue Gap shopping bag to break the deadlock. “The incumbent lost by that method,” she says.
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Hancsak was fresh out of Lake Worth High School in 1980 when she took a $9,000-a-year job with the town as a police dispatcher. Eight years later, Taylor had a deputy clerk opening and Hancsak claimed it. She calls Taylor, who has done municipal clerk work for more than 40 years, her mentor.
“As a young girl, she worked out beautifully, right from the beginning,” Taylor recalls. “She was a natural. I was just tickled to death to have her. Now I’m happy that she’s stayed with the town this whole time, right to retirement.”
Hancsak’s husband, Bill, a security specialist with the South Florida Water Management District, also is retiring on Jan. 29 and the two are moving to Swansboro, N.C. Their son, Andrew, was just hired as a police officer in North Miami, so there’s added reason to visit South Florida.
“It goes by in a flash, the 35 years,” Hancsak says. “I really like this town.”
And the town likes her. As a going-away gesture, commissioners unanimously voted to give her two months’ pay ($13,000) to cover all the questions she’ll have to answer the next couple of months as she trains her replacement.
“Karen has been an invaluable asset to the town of Ocean Ridge,” Lucibella said. “She’ll be deeply missed by each and every one of us.”
There will be an open house at Ocean Ridge Town Hall, 6450 N. Ocean Blvd. from 3-5 p.m. Jan. 29 for residents, friends and vendors to share memories and goodbyes with Hancsak. For information, call 732-2635.