Every so often, County Progress asks our distinguished Judges and Commissioners to allow us a glimpse into their public lives giving us a fresh appreciation for the myriad of roles and responsibilities they shoulder every day. Our thanks to Shelby County Judge Allison Harbison for taking the time to visit with us.
I am a lifelong resident of Shelby County. I was raised in the southeastern part of Shelby County in the middle of the Sabine National Forest on a 240-acre ranch. We raised cattle, horses, and 100,000 broiler chickens. Broiler chickens are raised for six to seven weeks and then processed for consumption. My mother managed the farm, and my father worked for the International Paper Company. From an early age I learned about hard work, integrity, and honesty.
I graduated from Center High School in 1979 and attended college at Sam Houston State University. After one year in college, I married John Harbison, and we have been married for 40 years. We have two children and three grandchildren.
I worked in the county clerk’s office from 1985 to 1989 as a deputy clerk. John and I started our own business in 1989 and have just recently sold it. While running our grocery/convenience store, I went back to college. I graduated from Panola College in 1998 with an Associate of Science degree, and from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2000 earning a Bachelor of Social Work degree. This degree really comes in handy with being a County Judge.
While I was finishing my last year in college, Peaches Conway, the county clerk, called me and wanted me to run for her unexpired term in 2000. I won the election in November 2000, graduated from college in December 2000, and took office in January 2001. I loved being the county clerk and elections administrator. In 2009 and 2010, I was nominated to represent the Northeast Texas County Clerks as their Clerk of the Year, and in 2010, I was voted by all the county and district clerks in Texas as County Clerk of the Year. I served as the clerks’ education chair and legislative chair during my 14 years as the county clerk.
I was asked to run for County Judge in 2014, and at the last minute I decided to run against the incumbent. After the dust settled in the 2014 March Primary, I had won by one vote. So when people tell you that their vote doesn’t count and it doesn’t matter whether you vote or not, tell them to call me. After a recount, I increased my margin of victory by 200 percent; I won by three. In 2018, I ran unopposed.
While I have accomplished many goals and milestones in my life, the accomplishment that I am most proud of is my children. My daughter, Summer, is a college professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, and my son, Britt, is an electrical maintenance supervisor for a major oil company. Britt and his wife, Heather, have blessed us with two grandsons, Tucker and Chase. Summer and her husband, John, blessed us this last October with a granddaughter, Kendall.
I enjoy reading and traveling. As a family, we like to load up the RV and camp during the summer. My grandsons play sports, and we love to go and watch them play.
IS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED?
Having been in county government for 18 years, I have no excuse; I knew exactly what the job was, having worked with the last five County Judges, numerous Commissioners, and other elected officials. I had a front row seat and a 14-year internship while preparing for the role of County Judge. I have been a student of county government, and it really works well when every office and official does their constitutional duties to the best of their abilities. I have a great Commissioners Court. We have a mutual respect for one another which makes my job so much more pleasant.
There are really no typical days for me as a County Judge. I have an open-door policy. If I’m in the office and have no appointments or hearings, you are welcome anytime. I may start with criminal docket call and end with a probate bench trial, with phone calls and emails worked in.
I try to think of challenges as opportunities. When I was elected as County Judge, I told my Commissioners Court that we were not going to fight in public. We could agree to disagree, but it is never personal. As the first female County Judge, I have tried hard to lead by example. I know that to gain respect you must first be willing to give respect. I understand and appreciate that the Commissioners Court is in charge of passing the budget and setting tax rates. As a body, we work together to best serve the citizens of Shelby County.
FAVORITE PART OF BEING A COUNTY JUDGE:
My favorite part of being County Judge is opening the door for someone when I come into the courthouse or holding the elevator door for someone. If they don’t know me, they will ask the security officer, and when he tells them who I am, they are truly surprised. I like to help people and let them know that their locally elected officials really do appreciate them and care about them. I will always strive to remember where I came from and the basic values that were instilled in me from an early age. It is such an honor to serve the citizens of Shelby County.
Last year, 2019, was a very trying year for me. In March while I was at the Spring Judicial Conference in Lubbock, I received a call from the nursing home where my mother lived. She had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and I flew home early on Thursday. She died Friday morning. Her funeral was on Sunday, and on Monday, April 1, my sisters-in-law and I cleaned out her room. That afternoon I went to my grandson’s first baseball game of the season and had a stroke shortly after I arrived. I spent three weeks in the hospital in Tyler. After being home for nearly a week, I had another stroke and was carried to Dallas. I spent a month in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. I had surgery on my brain, and they inserted a shunt and a pipeline for fluid and blood to drain off my brain.
I was discharged to rehabilitation at NeuroRestorative in Tyler. I spent four weeks in rehab and was released the first of July. I came back to the office the latter part of July. I started working a couple of mornings a week with someone having to bring me. After lunch I would catch a ride home with someone heading that way. I began driving myself after Labor Day, and at this time I’ve nearly worked up to full time. This experience has brought perspective to my life. Life is short. Never take your health for granted. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself, and allow yourself time to heal. I am here by the grace of God. I owe my life to God; without His mercy and the prayers offered for me, I do not believe I would be here today. I want to thank everyone who prayed for me, sent cards, and visited me in the hospitals and at home. Your thoughts and well wishes mean the world to me.
When I think of family, I think of my county. I feel responsible for every person who lives in my county. I strive every day to represent them to the best of my ability. I don’t want to be remembered as a politician, but as a public servant.