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Court reporter hangs up her notebook after nearly 45 years
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck/gkrambeck@qconline.com
Clara Delle Thompson recently retired as a court reporter from the Rock Island County court system after 35-plus years.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck/gkrambeck@qconline.com
Clara Delle Thompson recently retired as a court reporter from the Rock Island County court system after 35-plus years.
A dash, a dot, a flick of the wrist.

For nearly 45 years, Clara Delle Thompson recorded the endless drumbeat of the courtroom -- the orations of attorneys, the reading of charges, acquittals, convictions, muffled tears and cries of relief.

By the time she retired in October as a court reporter for the Rock Island County offices of the 14th Judicial Circuit, time and progress had rendered her pen and pad obsolete, a simpler mechanism of a bygone era replaced by digital records, keyboards and computer screens.

On a brisk Friday not long after her retirement, Ms. Thompson sat in a vacant room at the courthouse, eyebrows knitted under a shock of short white hair, trying to recall how to pen her private language.

"Willful and wanton," she murmured, making two squiggles. The red columns lining her notepad indicate who in the courtroom is speaking -- one column for the prosecution, or plaintiff; another for the defense; a third for the judge.

Each court reporter has a unique way of note-taking, she said, recalling how she often filled entire 200-page reporting books during an all-day trial.

"The-prosecution-has-rested-its-case," Ms. Thompson read aloud as her pen left behind tiny swoops and swirls.

She shook her head after trying to come up with another example. "You know, I can hardly remember anymore. So soon you forget."

Ms. Thompson was born at her family's country home about 100 miles west of Grand Island, Neb. The family lived there until she was 9, when work prompted her farming father to move his wife and four children to Rock Island.

"Times weren't all that great. There was industry here in the Quad-Cities," Ms. Thompson said. "I didn't want to move. There was a small country school and my friends were there. But when I got here, I didn't want to go back."

The move ushered in several changes, including a new job for her father and a baby boy for the family.

"I remember of course, out there in the country and on the farm, we had to dress so warm. I had some kind of a harness that kids had -- something that went over your shoulders and held up heavy cotton socks -- because we had to be warm, with snow pants and whatnot," Ms. Thompson said. "And then when I got to town, all the girls had the cute little anklets and shoes."

She began fifth grade at Longfellow in Rock Island, later attending Washington Junior High and Rock Island High School, where she spent most of her free time selling tickets at the local theater.

It was in high school that she learned shorthand, and, after graduation, she did occasional secretarial work for attorneys.

By the late 1960s, she was married, a mother and worked as a teller at First National Bank. One day, the court administrator came into the bank and asked if she would be interested in working as a court reporter.

She was told she could sit in the back of the courtroom the first month to bone up on her shorthand, but a few weeks later was asked to cover a hearing. She said she got more nervous when the court reporting notebook she was given was different from the one she had practiced on.

"I remember, I was just writing straight across. I just wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote. And the attorney, I'll always remember, he said, 'Ms. Reporter, will you read back that last question?' I couldn't find it."

The judge asked the attorney to repeat his question and the hearing continued.

"I was so embarrassed," Ms. Thompson said. "I walked out of the room, thinking, 'I'm either learning how to use this book today or I'm quitting. I learned."

When she started, the 13 female and one male reporters all used shorthand and taught her some shortcuts to keep up with the fast pace in the courtroom.

Sometimes, it was challenging because some people mumbled, talked low, had accents or used unfamiliar medical or technical terms. In one trial, she heard a doctor say his patient was "a beast."

She told her daughter, a nurse, who laughed and said the doctor likely said "obese."

Ms. Thompson said adoptions were the happiest cases to report on, while the others were "just different names and different places."

She often worked long hours transcribing notes and driving to other counties. At a trial she covered in Aledo, "I can remember being out there 'til midnight, waiting for the jury to come back."

Ms. Thompson worked under Judge Conway Spanton for 16 years, then David DeDoncker for three year and, finally, for Judge Jim Teros.

By then, the electronic steno-machine was available, which changed much of court reporting, she said. "There were girls learning the machine through the technical schools and, little by little, they came in. And I stayed, with my book."

She continued taking notes by hand and transcribing them on a typewriter. Eventually, the typewriter was replaced by a laptop, but she continued using pad and paper in court.

In 2001, she was one of several court reporters who wrote to legislators in Springfield, urging them to reconsider changes to the court system, including mandating reporters to be on hand all day, which often meant transcriptions would have to be completed at home, and allowing recording devices in the courtroom.

Ms. Thompson said she eventually did bring a recorder with her to court as a backup, but she believes a machine can't replace a trained ear and speedy hands.

"They never said there was an age limit or so much limit that I needed to get out," she said. But last fall, she handed in her letter of resignation to the chief judge.

"I just kind of wanted to sneak out and quit," she said. "But my court reporter friends didn't let me."

A big party was held in her honor, and, on her last day, she was allowed to park in the state's attorney's parking spot. Friends decorated the parking sign with a pink boa, big glasses and fringe -- accessories she had come to be known for.

Her days now are busy with grandchildren, downsizing her home and local social groups.

She leaned back in her chair in the empty room at the Rock Island County Courthouse and said, "It's been a good 44 years and 10 months, well, after I learned to do this book."

She patted her stenographer's notebook and laughed, "It's good I didn't have to quit that day."





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