‘It’s A Real Slice Of Life’
Retiring Accounts Commissioner Sees The Good, Bad And Ugly
Posted: December 31, 2012
HARRISONBURG — Trial attorneys see their fair share of drama in the courtroom.
But David J. Hatmaker, commissioner of accounts for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, has them beat when it comes to witnessing contentious disputes.
His job often involves working with siblings as they fight over a deceased parent’s assets.
“I tell the trial lawyers I have lunch with, I see more blood on the floor in a month than they do in a year,” the 78-year-old said last week in his downtown office, littered with moving boxes.
Hatmaker, of Harrisonburg, is retiring as commissioner of accounts at the end of the year after 12 years on the job and a legal career going back more than four decades.
A witness to plenty of the nasty side of human behavior, he says he’s learned that people are people: Most are good, he said, but some aren’t.
“We get a lot of people who don’t always behave as they should,” said Hatmaker, who worked for 15 years as an assistant commissioner before taking the helm of the office. “[But] I’m not pessimistic about the way people behave. I’m optimistic, but I’m realistic.”
As commissioner, Hatmaker oversaw fiduciaries, often executors, tasked with handling estates, as in the case when someone dies. In addition to estates, he also serves as a “watchdog for the proper administration of” trusts, conservatorships and guardianships,” Hatmaker wrote on his office’s website.
In his words, he makes sure people do what they’re supposed to and submits a report to the Rockingham County Circuit Court.
Not surprisingly, children of those who have recently died often get into arguments over money and other assets, he said, but “usually their animosity can be traced back to childhood.”
At any given time, the commissioner’s office has 400 active fiduciaries. In these cases, Hatmaker said, the law seeks to protect three classes of people: First, the tax authorities; second, the deceased’s creditors; and third, the beneficiaries, usually the spouse and children.
Grievances among siblings going back decades sometimes will come to a head when the estate is being settled, Hatmaker said. In larger families, children closer in age tend to form alliances.
“It’s a real slice of life,” he said.
But when disagreements arise, he seeks to remain impartial and keep the focus on getting the estate settled.
His is a no-nonsense approach to work, says Cindy Cline, deputy clerk of accounts for Rockingham County.
“He doesn’t dilly-dally around about it and pass the buck and do it another day,” she said. “When you ask for something or if a problem presents itself, he gives it immediate attention.”
His demeanor, though, can be deceiving.
“Mr. Hatmaker, known for his gruffness and no-nonsense attitude, is really a big ol’ teddy bear with a heart of gold,” his auditor, Mary Fitzpatrick, said in an email. “He is always willing to listen and to protect the wishes of the deceased person.”
Steeped In History
A native of Strasburg, Hatmaker got his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1968. He then moved to Harrisonburg and worked for the law firm of Wharton, Aldhizer and Weaver.
For his entire legal career, he’s worked out of the Bank of America building on Court Square.
“This is a good building to practice law in,” he said. “It’s old. It’s venerable. It’s got a lot of quirks.”
The 100-year-old-plus structure has a lot of history, which Hatmaker finds conducive to practicing law.
“This is a profession that depends a lot on history. Precedent is history … In general it’s true you can scratch a lawyer and find a historian,” he said. “We’re very historically minded. I think being in a building like this kind of helps that. It may not, but I think it does.”
Hatmaker’s interest in history permeates his life.
A member of the Sons of the American Revolution, he suggested marking the Fourth of July holiday by reading the Declaration of Independence.
And for the last 17 years, he’s done just that, reciting the 236-year-old document on the steps of the Rockingham County Courthouse.
Hatmaker says he’s not the kind of person to take a casual interest in a topic.
“If I’m going to get interested, I’m going to get deeply involved,” he said.
He has been a fan of the Boston Red Sox since he spent the summer of 1946 with his uncle in Duxbury, Mass.
Hatmaker can still name the starting nine of the ‘46 team, which won the American League that year and lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Sixty-six years later, he’s quick to defend the Sox’s Johnny Pesky, who many blame for blowing Game 7 by holding the ball for too long after a hit in the eighth inning.
“Johnny Pesky was not at fault,” Hatmaker says firmly, in true lawyer form ready to argue his case.
Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or firstname.lastname@example.org