COLUMBIA — While thumbing through an old notebook she used in nursing school, Cathy Richards, 59, holds onto a piece of paper that sums up her personal philosophy as Boone County public administrator.
"Nothing will help you find complete happiness within yourself and others more than coming face to face with people who have way less materially and who have way bigger problems than you," the paper reads.
From an early age, Richards said, she has learned the meaning of responsibility and caretaking.
"I have always wanted to be helpful," said Richards. "I was as a little kid, and I was as a teenager. I would just like to continue helping."
Richards grew up on a farm caring for her family’s animals and watching two younger siblings while her parents worked. As a child, she walked three miles each day to a one-room schoolhouse during primary school no matter the weather.
At Harrisburg High School, she helped run the senior class, was voted most congenial by her classmates and was a basketball star. Richards thinks she hasn’t changed much since then.
"My office is run like a team," Richards said. "It’s not me. It’s my office. It’s us together. We are a very cohesive unit."
It took time for Richards to find her career path. After watching three of her children graduate from college, she was finally able to begin her college career and began taking night classes in nursing at Columbia College. She had to drop out, though, when a required afternoon course conflicted with work.
Richards later earned a bachelor's in business management with an emphasis in human relations at William Woods University. She knew that degree would help in just about any career.
Richards worked as office manager for the Boone County Commission for eight years before running for public administrator in 2008. Previous incumbent Connie Bell Hendren had stepped down after 16 years as public administrator and endorsed Richards. Now, Hendren has decided to come out of retirement and is running against Richards.
"I think she just never transitioned into retirement well," Richards said. “I have done a good job here. I have the same supporters I had before."
The public administrator is an elected official who manages the estates of people who die and the estates of minors and incapacitated or disabled people when there is no legal guardian or other person available to assume those duties. Public administrators serve four-year terms and are paid $83,657 per year.
Hendren said several clients have come to her to complain about Richards’ work during the past four years. Richards, however, said she has received no formal complaints. Instead, she said, she has received many phone calls and letters of support.
"My main priorities would be to continue my relationship with my clients," Richards said. "I have a good rapport with my clients."
Richards dislikes the negative tone of Hendren’s campaign.
"I can’t do that, nor would I go there, because I am a role model for my clients," Richards said.
Richards recently earned her master’s degree in social work and counseling from Stephens College after nearly six years of five-hour night classes. Earning the degree taught her about the human behavior aspects of her job, such as diffusing and redirecting problems that can escalate, she said.
"What you do is you give them hope," Richards said about her clients. "It’s all because of my master’s degree in counseling because it taught me how to treat each of them and how to look at things differently."
Richards has handled more than 400 open cases during the past four years. This number continually fluctuates.
The job never stops, she said. Richards carries a cellphone at all times and said she always answers emails, no matter where she is.
"You put all your time in it," Richards said. "You never know whenever someone is dying and they need your help at the hospital or you have a client that has eloped and you have to help find that person. I never know after hours what will happen."
Richards said she has also learned the importance of listening and redirecting. Even though she has her master’s in counseling, she hires counselors to work with her clients so that her boundaries as guardian are respected. Her job often takes on the role of surrogate parent.
"I find myself in more of a mother role to them," Richards said. "I am not here as a counselor, but I am here with the skills to help them do things and see things."
Richards said the public administrator must have a full understanding of human behavior. More than 90 percent of her clients are mentally ill, she said.
"If you don’t have an understanding of it and don’t know how to work with the mentally ill, you’re not going to be a whole lot of help," Richards said.
Richards plans to re-establish a mental health advisory board of 10 to 12 professionals who would meet every three months and help answer community questions about the office. Richards has had four people express interest in serving; they include a previous board member, a teacher, a doctor and a member of the sheriff’s department.
Richards has two deputies in her office. She said it's time to hire more employees to help handle the caseload.
Richards said she has modernized the office by reducing paperwork. Client documents are stored on a computer and are easily accessible from outside the office. She also uses Skype to reach far-away clients more frequently.
"The visual connection is really important to them," Richards said.
Richards said the public knows very little about the work of public administrators. If re-elected, she wants to change that.
"This office has kept quiet, silent for so long, and I really don’t know why,” Richards said. "We are human beings. I am tired of looking at it likes it’s a secret society. Mental illness is a part of life."
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.