NORTH SALEM, N.Y.— It’s taken longtime North Salem Court Clerk MaryAnn Ambrosino a while to orchestrate her exit. Mainly because she wanted to make sure all the loose ends were tied up.
Ambrosino had originally planned to step down about a year ago, but that was put on hold when two new town justices were sworn into office and she felt the need to help them transition smoothly. Then, she was going to make the move in December, but that was pushed off until May. Finally, she was able to shorten that to March 30. Today is her final day.
Ambrosino sat down with North Salem News to reflect on her many memories and experiences since first taking on the job 28 years ago.
Over the past three decades,the office went from having everything done by hand to a fully integrated electronic system that allows her to both receive and submit reports and records effortlessly among the myriad individuals and organizations the court interacts with on a daily basis.
“When I first came here, I thought this would just be a temporary thing. A stepping stone. Boy, was that not the case! And, I never left,” she said.
Ambrosino has worked under four town supervisors and 25 ADAs. She saw the office moved from its original location at the Annex, to the office above M&T bank, then back to the Annex, and then, finally, the former highway garage on June Road which was converted into the courthouse/police station/town meeting hall in 2015.
“The thing I love about working here is it’s always changing. This isn’t a job that you walk in and know what you’re doing. You’re always learning,” she said.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Ambrosino worked in Manhattan on the Stock Exchange, in the airline industry, and was managing a small law firm in Manhattan when she met her husband on a blind date. Once they got married, she moved to Patterson and took on the job as assistant court clerk in North Salem in 1989. She says it was the perfect opportunity for her to raise her three children and at the same time enjoy a rewarding career.
Now, it’s her two young grandchildren, ages 2 1/2 and four months, that have been the impetus behind her retirement.
“This is why I’m retiring now instead of later. I want to spend more time with them and enjoy them while I’m still healthy and active,” she said.
The Patterson resident has seen it all in her 28 years as court clerk. Whether she’s preparing endless documents for court dates, processing tickets, liasoning with the DMV, Department of Probation or the Westchester County Jail, or taking courses to upgrade her skills, she’s thoroughly enjoyed her job which is part clerk, part manager, multi-tasker and even psychologist.
“Sometimes I feel it’s like putting on a theatrical production once a week, getting everybody lined up in their places, making sure everybody knows their lines. There’s so much preparation before we go out there, like making sure we have all the reports and that everyone’s on the same page,” Ambrosino reflected, adding, “It’s a very interesting job. Very challenging.”
Ambrosino explained that the most important thing she learned in her many years as court clerk is to have a sense of humor and not to let daily stress get the best of her.
“In the beginning, when I first started, it was very, very stressful. Now, if I can’t fix it today, I’ll just fix it tomorrow. There’s always a way to go back and correct something. You have to take it seriously, but not the point it immobilizes you.”
She’s also lived through court security upgrades as the years have gone by. Following a spate of violent court incidents a few years ago across the country, all the courts in New York were forced to install mandatory security measures including metal detectors, bullet-proof glass in the clerk’s office, as well as a bullet-proof dais in the courtroom. In addition, chairs are no longer freestanding, as they could be turned into weapons. Instead, they must be anchored to the floor or together.
Working in the court system isn’t for the faint of heart. For one, there are long hours, in addition to stress. Mondays, she says, start early and end late, as court is in session. They start conferencing criminal cases at 5:30 p.m., are in court by 6:30, and oftentimes she and fellow court clerk Susan Koch arent out of there until 9 o’clock at night.
The other part of Ambrosino’s job is to help ease the concerns of the hundreds of people who pass through her office each year. Last year, North Salem processed about 2,000 traffic tickets. In addition to mailing out traffic tickets and packaging all the documentation for court cases, the court clerk’s office handles a variety of issues including orders of protection and small claims court matters. Ambrosino and Koch also work closely with the Westchester County Jail, Department of Probation and the attorneys representing dozens of defendants at any given time.
Helping the public navigate the legal system is also part of her job.
“For a lot of people, this is their first interaction with the courts, and it can be really intimidating and overwhelming. Whether it’s a DWI, domestic violence or assault, we have to be assuring telling people what to expect, and that it will all be okay,” Ambrosino explained.
Over the years, she’s seen cases that are humerous and tragic. Ambrosino recalled a case of a North Salem resident who was arrested because he liked to mow his lawn in the nude. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well with residents who were concerned about their young children. She noted that she and the judges were amused and relieved when the man arrested came to his court appearance with his clothes on.
Ambrosino says they’ve also had numerous celebrities walk through the door. Comedian Rip Torn lived in Connecticut and was arrested several times in North Salem for DWI in the early 2000s.
There was also a man who unsuccessfully fought a traffic ticket and didn’t like the outcome, saying to the judge “Can I have a do-over?” that prompted laughter in the courtroom.
Ambrosino also looked back on several particularly sad cases.
“Every family that comes before the court is a sad story. I remember one family in particular whose son had to answer to DWI charges after he was speeding and killed his brother. The thought of defending one son while burying another was very sad to me,” she said.
She recalled, with a touch of melancholy, one particular story of a teeanged girl who got caught up in drugs. Ambrosino recalled she was pretty and very bright.She said she was hopeful that the girl was getting back on track after she was ordered to do jailtime following one particular arrest. The North Salem High School student was planning to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology when he fatally overdosed.
“I really thought she was going to get it and was going to be okay, said Ambrosino,”I just felt so sad for her.”
As Ambrosino steps down, her fellow court clerk, Susan Koch, will succeed her in managing the clerk’s office. Ambrosino says she doesn’t expect to remain idle in her retirement. She says she is hoping to volunteer with the Putnam County drug court, a program which allows adults convicted of drug charges to opt out of a prison sentence and instead take part in a rigorous, minimum two-year program where they can get sober, learn new behaviors, and become contributing members of society once again.
Ambrosino became nostalgic when reflecting on her immiment retirement.
“This is such a great town. I never lost the gratitude of being able to drive in along June Road every day to work. It’s like Currier and Ives. I will miss North Salem. My life was really enriched for that.”
North Salem Town Justice John Aronian says he will miss her.
“We are so sorry to see MaryAnn leave. She has been the bedrock of the North Salem Court for more than two decades. Not only are we losing our talented and reliable court clerk, we also have to part with the incredibly patient, compassionate, and elegant gal who we have come to know so well over our brief time on the bench. Our court and our town owe her a debt of gratitude. She will be greatly missed,” he said.