Harry L.W. Hopkins, who served as Harford County Register of Wills for 24 years, retiring almost three years ago, died Aug. 1, his successor confirmed Monday.
The 87-year-old Mr. Hopkins, a Bel Air resident, long went by the nickname of "Tombstone" because he had once sold headstones among other jobs he had done in the funeral business. He was first elected register of wills in 1986, an office which he said included doing "a little bit of everything," as he told The Aegis in a 2009 interview.
Mr. Hopkins, who was known for his sharp wit and for being an engaging story-teller, won re-election to the position five times. Originally a Democrat, he eventually switched his party affiliation to Republican, as many county politicians did when the county's electorate turned solidly Republican in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The register of wills is responsible for approving appointing personal representatives to administer estates and for overseeing the proper and timely administration of these proceedings, according to the official website of the state's registers. County registers assist and advise the public in the preparation of all required probate forms, maintain and preserve the permanent record of all proceedings and serve as the clerk to the Orphans' Court, the legal body which oversees disputed estate matters.
The office also serves as a repository for the wills of people who haven't died and, at the time of his retirement, Mr. Hopkins estimated he had some 18,000 wills on file, as well as the records of almost 41,000 deceased people.
"What's nice about the dead people is that they don't give you a lot of mouth," he said at the time. "It's the live ones that will kill you."
It's very much a public service office, and Mr. Hopkins was known to have put a personal premium on just that during his tenure. He had previously served as an Orphans Court judge for more than 12 years and admitted to having refereed more than a few family fights during his time in the register of wills office, as well. "We had a family in here fighting over a 10-year-old Christmas tree," he recalled.
"We open estates, collect money [inheritance taxes, for instance], report to the comptroller, send notices to the papers," he explained about his job. "It's never the same. You enjoy helping people, but it's a rough job when a family comes in and their only child died. Mostly accidents are the number one killer of children; that'll get to you."
Chuck Robbins has been a neighbor of Mr. Hopkins since "the late 1930s, early 1940s," Robbins recalled. He stayed in touch with Mr. Hopkins while regularly while doing historical research at the courthouse.
Robbins, who is 84 and shared a somewhat morbid sense of humor with Mr. Hopkins, was not at all surprised to hear of Mr. Hopkins' death.
"We talked about kicking the bucket every day," Robbins said. "We would ask, 'Were you in the obits today?'"
He also recalled that a buzzard would occasionally land on the top of Mr. Hopkins' "enormous Victorian house," and they joked that should be his campaign logo.
Despite the death jokes, Robbins said people will remember the commitment and kindness Mr. Hopkins brought to the register of wills position.
"Harry was a good register of wills. He was very sensitive to people because of his experience," Robbins said. "He had a good sense of humor. His staff was excellently trained."
"He was a good old boy. He will be missed," Robbins added.
Robbins noted Hopkins comes from a prominent Bel Air family and the "L.W." stands for "Lippincott Webb," after a relative.
Derek Hopkins, who succeeded Mr. Hopkins as register of wills in 2010, said he and everyone else at the Circuit Courthouse in Bel Air, where Mr. Hopkins worked, will deeply miss him.
"Harry stopped in here almost every week and we will all miss that very much," said Derek Hopkins, who is only "very distantly" related to his predecessor.
"He supported me all the way through my campaign last time and still hadn't missed a beat," Derek Hopkins said. "Harry was the type of person who loved to help everybody and had the biggest heart and truly was a Harford living treasure."
Harry Hopkins was formally named a Harford Living Treasure by the Harford County Council upon his retirement.
When he first made his plans to retire public, Harry Hopkins told an interviewer, "I don't look forward to being my own customer; I rather enjoy opening these estates."
Derek Hopkins said he will remember Harry Hopkins' stories about his family and his military service, and recalled his love of the TV show "NCIS."
He said Harry Hopkins established the tradition of the register of wills office being "a tight family" where people go the extra mile.
Harry Hopkins once called himself a "movie nut." He served in the Army as a corporal. He received a World War II Victory medal before being discharged in 1946.
Mr. Hopkins was born in Baltimore and was the son of the late William Wyllie Hopkins Sr. and Annabel Webb Hopkins and the husband of the late Annie Laurie Rampley Hopkins.
In addition to serving as register of wills and on the Orphans Court, he was the owner and operator of Harry L.W. Hopkins Insurance Agency, had worked for Fosters Funeral Home and sold tombstones for J.C. Taylor and Silbaugh Memorials. He also worked for the Bel Air Post Office for several years, was a vice president of Harford Finance Company in Bel Air; worked for Harford Mutual Insurance Company and also for the Town of Bel Air.
Mr. Hopkins was a member of St. Mary's Episcopal Church. He belonged to the American Legion Post No. 39 in Bel Air, the Bel Air Rotary Club, Highland Society of Harford County, Harford County Historical Society, VFW and Mt. Ararat Masonic Lodge in Bel Air.
"The whole courthouse is a little somber," Derek Hopkins said Monday. "Harry was a fixture in this courthouse to everybody."
"Harry was in this courthouse for many years and changed a lot of lives, and touched ours," he added.
Mr. Hopkins is survived by his son, Nelson W. Hopkins and his wife, Kristine F., of Street; daughters, Ellen Hope Hopkins, of Bel Air, and Laura Ann Hopkins and spouse, Kathy Schooley, of Woodstock; and grandchildren, Kaitlyn E. Hopkins and Allison N. Hopkins, both of Street. In addition to his parents and his wife, Mr. Hopkins was predeceased by his brother, William Wylie Hopkins Jr.; and a sister, Annabel H. Mitchell.
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Visitation will be at McComas Funeral Home in Abingdon on Wednesday, Aug. 14, from 2-4 and 7-9 p.m. Services will be at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Abingdon on Thursday, Aug. 15, at 10 a.m. with Rev. Thomas W. Allen officiating. Interment will be at Bethel Presbyterian Church in White Hall.