When 61-year-old Gerald C. “Gerry” Rickhoff leads me to his office on the first floor of the Paul Elizondo Tower, he doesn’t appear, at first glance, to be a man who’s had a gun pointed at him five times during his almost 20-year administration as Bexar County Clerk. The office, which manages court records and serves as the county treasury, affects virtually every Bexar resident; the inevitability of a few disgruntled citizens taking matters to the bonus round of crazy is omnipresent. When Rickhoff faces Democratic nominee and Balcones Heights Mayor Suzanne de Leon in November’s general election, she’ll be challenging an adept surveyor of people with a honed métier in clocking situational danger.
Rickhoff grew up as the middle child of seven siblings in St. Louis, Mo., where his father was a district judge. It perhaps came as no surprise to his family when he announced his post-university plan to travel the world for 14 months, because there was always copy of National Geographic on the coffee table.
“I lived outside for a year,” says Rickhoff, whose wanderlust led him through India, Afghanistan, Iran and throughout Europe in the late 1970s. “That really taught me to be resourceful. It taught me that there are no problems ... only answers.”
For a time, Rickhoff worked illegally at an Australian abattoir 24 miles southwest of Brisbane. Every evening he’d collect his wages in cash, after working a 16-hour shift, then he’d sleep in the parking lot. “It was rough work” with “rough people,” he says. His beard, gray and ursine, glows in the late morning light. “I was one of the only literate people in the factory.”
While in Tehran, the pages of his passport began to tear with wear. He thought there may have been some border agent-approved “magic Scotch tape” that he should be using. As he walked up the stairs of the embassy building in search of some advice, a marine guard “put a nerve pinch” on him grunting, “you’re leaving.” He was hastily escorted out the doors and into an alley—the same alley the six American diplomats used as an escape during the “Canadian Caper” (artfully) depicted in the 2012 film Argo. Regular Scotch tape would have to do.
Rickhoff returns to the Old World—Northern Italy, in particular—once a year. “There’s a lot of poor people in Italy [but] they still smile and laugh and take you into their home,” he says. “[They have] the joy of life. Poor people are more isolated here in the United States.” In Italy, he finds they are “more integrated.”
Back in the states, Rickhoff enjoyed a seven-year stint teaching special ed at Southwest Independent School District where he learned the South Side “pretty damn well.” Perhaps fated to follow the footsteps of his father, he ran for County Clerk in 1990 and lost. “I wasn’t supported by my party originally,” he says. Undeterred, Rickhoff eventually acceded to the office in 1995.
Almost 20 years later, he credits his success with being surrounded by people he trusts. “I do what I call collaborative government,” he says. Throughout our interview, the door stays wide open and a “summer help” Adonis sits attentively to my right.
“People are coming to the Clerk’s Office with serious problems,” he says. “As clerk, you have to be in sync with the people. You’re gonna see the DWIs, the wife beaters—men have been beating women since the beginning of time ... [that’s] not gonna go away—you’re gonna see all of the anomalies of society [so] forgiveness is really important in this job. Grinding through the system is incredibly difficult for some citizens to handle.”
Although he acknowledges a trend of “things moving in a more positive direction,” he stresses the need for humility in his office by saying, “There will always be the homeless, the poor, drug addicts and the mentally ill.”
Three weeks ago, Rickhoff received another death threat. Even though he dismisses these dangers as part of the “texture of life,” his spidey senses are full throttle when he walks through the parking lot twice a day. “I see things others don’t,” he says explaining to me how he looked at my hands when I first entered the room. “Threats come from [the] hands.”
When approached by a stranger, he looks for the flitting veins in the neck, micro expressions that may offer warning of malicious intent. Listening to the first three things a person says can offer a ton of intel, he asserts. “You have to think like Sherlock Holmes,” he says.
Holmes on a tight budget, anyway.
Rickhoff’s wearing a Macklemore-worthy paisley shirt. Army green. Thrift store accouter is his thing.
“I still live like a cheapskate,” he says. “If I see a silk shirt for two dollars, I’m taking it.”
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