Jo-Ann Raia took a job 39 years ago, and the Town of Huntington hasn’t been the same since. Elected town clerk for 10 consecutive terms, she’s served office under six town supervisors. As she prepares to retire at the end of this year, her own legacy, some might say, overshadows them all.
“Huntington’s longest-serving town clerk, Jo-Ann Raia is an institution. Her handiwork is woven into almost every one of our major life milestones, from the beginning of life to marriage and the end for generations of Huntingtonians over the past four decades,” Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “She has set a very high standard for her successor to live up to.”
Town clerks are responsible for keeping records, charged with documenting every birth, death and marriage in the town’s boundaries, and safely handling and processing all other information, such as commuter parking and shellfishing permits. Her natural instincts and attention to detail have served the town well.
“I’m somewhat of a hoarder,” she said jokingly. “I have a hard time throwing things out.”
New York State now dictates the retention rules for certain records. That was not the case in 1984 when Raia first stepped foot into Town Hall as an elected official at age 41. She learned all she could about organizing and archiving documents, joined an international organization of town clerks and then developed a record system. What she has created, and will leave behind when she retires at the age of 79, is a record center and archives containing museum-worthy artifacts that may have otherwise been lost or damaged.
Under Raia’s leadership, the town archives have preserved historical documents that include the original deeds, showing the town’s first purchase of property in 1653 from Native Americans. Other records include Revolutionary War artifacts, a slave registry and a docket showing the names and other information about residents who signed up for military service during the Civil War.
The Revolutionary artifacts include coins from 1779 and a book of war claims, essentially a ledger full of IOUs from British government. Each page shows in detail how British soldiers in an effort to defend the colonies took whatever they needed from town residents: ox, horses, saddles, etc. Because the British lost the war, residents were never compensated for the items taken, said Antonia Mattheou, the town’s archivist, who has worked alongside Raia for 26 years.
One of the town’s prized possessions is a 2 ½-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, a schoolmaster and spy for the Continental Army, who was captured in New York City and hung by the British at the age of 19. The sculpture was carved by Frederick MacMonnies, the same man whose 8-foot bronze Nathan Hale statue stands in front of City Hall in New York City. “Artists used to carve smaller versions of their work to earn income,” Raia explained. “Only three exist.”
The statue used to be on permanent display in a prominent vestibule at Old Town Hall, which the town vacated in 1979. MacMonnies’ widow Alice bequeathed the statue to the Town of Huntington in 1919. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. own the two other statues.
The preservation quest
When Raia first took office, she noticed important documents were subjected to extreme moisture and heat, with some record books browning from being stacked over ventilation grates.
The conditions prompted her to seek funding to renovate what was once a basement gymnasium.
“What is she doing down there?” she recalled people saying. Previous town clerks, she said, must have been overwhelmed or saw little value in organizing it all.
Raia began securing grants to establish and grow a record center and archive her first year in office, when some of the town’s most important and valuable records were scattered.
Over the years, Raia has become notorious for record-keeping and archiving. A long list of organizations and government entities have honored her for putting in place respectable record-keeping practices. People from the state’s police commission, for instance, have visited the town’s records center striving to duplicate her model.
Raia regularly curates exhibitions with the town’s archivist.
Currently, Raia’s office is pulling together a tribute to Huntington’s shellfish culture. Its showcases include an old map of the bay floor depicting gridded parcels, where residents once staked claim to the sea floor, a commodity that shellfishermen passed on from generation to generation.
The shellfish exhibit also includes a chart of the annual oyster harvests from 1880 to 1972 for the states of New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The chart that Raia has preserved and is now exhibiting shows dramatic declines in the bounty of New England oysters over time.
“Jo-Ann Raia is the best town clerk ever,” said George Doll, a shellfisherman and former Northport mayor. “If you need something from Jo-Ann, you got it.”
He said that he’s going to miss her after she retires at the end of the year.
Dedication and inspiration
“The town clerk needs to be available 24/7,” Raia said. Over the years, the phone would ring at all hours, sometimes from local funeral directors who needed deaths recorded so they could arrange for a burial. That aspect of the job sometimes entailed big black hearses with body bags pulling into her driveway at night.
“I just wonder what the neighbors thought,” she said. “People didn’t have SUVs years ago.”
The decision to not run for office again, Raia said, required serious consideration.
“My son said to me, ‘Mom, it’s time for you’,” she said. Her eyes welled up as she contemplates retiring in December.
“My sister died at age 84,” she said. “If I run for another term, I’ll be her age.”
Raia is an avid gardener and people tell her that her own property resembles an arboretum. She may help other people with landscaping in her retirement years and she may write a book. But she will remain living with her daughter Diane in Huntington.
Raia’s son Andrew has been a state legislator representing Northport for the last 17 years. In November, his name will be on the ballot for town clerk.
“As much as I love being an assemblyman — I’d do it for another 17 years —you might say that I’ve been in training for the town clerk job since I was in 8th grade,” Andrew Raia said. “I can honestly say that I know this job backwards and forwards.”
The job is purely a public service position, he said.
“My mother has been so dedicated,” he said. “She’s been the clearinghouse for problems.”
Raia’s staff members show similar devotion and are quick to agree that she runs a tight ship.
“They stay because they like me,” Raia said.
Her comment drew enthusiastic agreement from her office staff, during a recent interview.
“Whoever takes over the town clerk job better be good,” Raia said. “And I hope their initials are A.R.”