Front line duty as a field artillery soldier changed everything for St. Clair County Circuit Clerk Barney Metz. Had it not been for World War II, the veteran and 47-year public servant might have just followed the routine of his time.
"In my generation you finished high school," he said. "College wasn't necessary like it is today. We grew up in Southeast Missouri and most graduates went to St. Louis for a job. Then they went home for their high school sweethearts and started a family. That was the routine."
At age 83 and nearing the end of his seventh four-year term as circuit clerk, Metz, a Democrat, is finally ready to retire.
His potential successor as keeper of all court filings and receiver of more than $4 million annually in fees and fines, assistant state's attorney Brendan Kelly, is running on the Democratic ticket in November's general election. He faces Republican Terry Wright.
Metz, who in retirement vows to golf, fish, bird hunt and continue to keep up with his 25 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, said he's "seen a lot of history in life."
He was among thousands of American troops who arrived in France on Utah Beach after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. A field artillery man in Gen. George Patton's forward element, Metz was decorated with four Bronze Medals for his participation in as many major European battles: Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe.
His draft notice arrived at about the same time he graduated from high school in 1943. He said he felt "lucky" to have been drafted at 18 years of age because "you have no idea what it's going to be like to be in the service and in a war zone."
A soldier of the 689 Field Artillery Battalion in the Third Army, Metz said he and his comrades were "very proud of our stature and our position."
He recalled being out in the elements in weather "just like here," and eating hot meals until the kitchen truck was converted to hauling supplies. That's when they would carry days worth of C rations (canned stew, hash, ham and beans, for instance) and K rations (three meals providing about 3,000 calories).
"We were on a fast track," he said. "You're basically in it 24 hours a day. At least half of your unit (11 men) have to be by that artillery piece."
Metz recalled that two soldiers in his unit were hit. He told the story of one.
"One guy said he was going home," Metz said. "We were under enemy fire and he went out and sat on his helmet. He was hit on the thigh by shrapnel."
The soldier's plan to go home for good was foiled as his non-life threatening injury was patched up and he was put back in the line.
After living in a tent for the duration of his deployment with raw weather sometimes a constant, Metz decided his next career would not be one where he had to be outside.
"We got home from Europe and after a week of celebration my Dad said, 'Are you waiting till all the jobs are gone? He said, 'I'll help you find a job on the railroad.' I told him I wouldn't work on the railroad.
"What I wanted to do was find an inside job," Metz said.
After he was home for good in January 1946, Metz found a variety of occupations over the years, such as accounting clerk, bakery truck driver and operator of Barney's Service Station in Dupo, until he became a fixture in St. Clair County government in 1962.
Metz worked in the assessor's office and moved up the ranks to chief deputy.
In 1974, St. Clair County Clerk Daniel Ring, a Democrat, became ill with cancer, Metz said, which led to his selection as candidate. He won the election and served as County Clerk until 1980 when he first ran as Circuit Clerk.
When the new circuit clerk is sworn into office Dec. 1 and Metz says farewell, he said he'll mostly miss "my people."
"We've got a bunch of really good ones," he said.
Metz, who has routinely woken at 5 a.m. for decades, said he will have to "start over," and "re-make" his life.
One who does most of his home repairs, cuts his own grass and loves to play golf, "I don't see that as a problem," he said.