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City honors longtime history buff, other volunteers

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On most Thursday afternoons, 88-year-old J. Clancy Hopkins sits all alone in a basement room in City Hall and files information about the city of Watertown’s long history.

But the real fun begins when someone calls him or stops by to ask about their family genealogy or want a specific question answered about the city’s history.

“I really enjoy it,” he said.

Mr. Hopkins was among about 40 volunteers who were honored on Monday by the city for all of their work over the years, saying “thank you” to those who serve on various boards, volunteer their time and make a difference in Watertown. They included the Examining Board of Plumbers, the Arsenal Street Cemetery, the Board of Ethics and Riverfront Committee.

During the ceremony, Elliott B. Nelson, confidential assistant to the city manager, said the city’s volunteers don’t always get the recognition they deserve.

“We cannot do what we do without you,” he said.

A few months ago, Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns suggested doing something to honor city volunteers, mentioning specifically Mr. Hopkins and all of his help for years. A volunteer day was last held by the city about 12 years ago.

Katherine T. Plante-Hunt was honored for her and her family’s work on the Arsenal Street Cemetery. In the past six years, they have built a walking bridge, gazebo and, most recently, an informational kiosk at the 6-acre cemetery.

“I’m honored by the way they gave credit to all the volunteers,” she said.

But Mr. Hopkins has been a fixture at City Hall for more than 15 years, helping out in the city history room. He had also served on the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library board of directors for that long and at the front desk at Samaritan Medical Center.

“It keeps me young,” he said, “And keeps you moving. You can’t just sit on the sofa at home and watch TV.”

His wife, Patti L., works as an administrative assistant in the city’s engineering office on the third floor.

“The city is very fortunate to have him,” said City Clerk Ann M. Saunders, whose office is responsible for the history office. “He’s very knowledgeable about any history about Watertown And he tells great stories about Watertown.”

Thousands of old birth, marriage and death records and newspaper clippings are stored in 350 three-ring binders that sit on shelves surrounding an old desk where he sits. The binders contain information on such subjects as businesses, churches, clubs and organizations, sports and dozens more.

Usually, the retired manufacturing representative brings his 13-year-old poodle, Tiger, to help keep him company while he diligently files the information on a computer.

“He’s been given dispensation to be here,” he joked, noting that no other dogs are allowed in the municipal building except Tiger.

So far, about 75 percent of the information has been indexed. He also oversees the other handful of volunteers in the history office.

Over the years, he has learned a lot about Watertown’s history. For instance, on this day, someone called to find out about the first name of a mayor who served during the 1930s and 1940s. As it turned out, the public servant’s name was Paul and he actually held the city manager’s position, not mayor.

The father of five children — an attorney, a plastic surgeon and three business owners who live all over the country — grew up in Syracuse and moved to Watertown during the 1960s.

“I love it here,” he said.

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