Gatekeeper of Lake County's records for 26 years is closing the book on career

As the elected position of Lake County recorder of deeds winds down, so will the career of Mary Ellen Vanderventer, its gatekeeper for the last 26 years.

Once the lone Democrat among countywide elected officials, Vanderventer has navigated significant political and technological changes during her tenure. Her last day is Nov. 30.

As of Dec. 1, the office will be dissolved and operate as the recorder's division under Lake County Clerk-elect Anthony Vega.

It's been a dream job of "doing good deeds for you" said Vanderventer, who started her career in 1986 as elections administrator in the clerk's office.

She said she'll miss the daily interaction with the public and thanked staff members for their dedication, commitment and support over the years.

"Who gets to go to work 36 years and have a blast every day?" she said.

In 1996, Vanderventer defeated a Republican powerhouse to become the first female recorder in Lake County history. And she'll be the last Lake County recorder when she leaves.

Waukegan born and raised, Vanderventer is the daughter of two-term former Mayor Bill Durkin and sister of a county board member, also named Bill, who stepped down in April after serving since 2010.

Vanderventer was the only countywide elected Democrat when she started but has seen a complete turnaround over the past few elections.

"It was a Republican county," she said. "Look at it today. It's amazing."

Democrats hold most top countywide positions and will have a 14-5 majority on the county board when newly elected officials are sworn in Dec. 5.

Vanderventer said she has focused on customer service rather than politics in the office that is one of Lake County government's top revenue generators.

"I really had the pleasure of getting along with everybody on both sides of the aisle," she said. "I never felt any of the pain others felt and others continue to feel."

Vanderventer may not be a household name, but many Lake County residents avail themselves of the office's services, which include recording, preserving and providing access to public records.

Ninety percent of those records involve land transactions of some type, like a deed or mortgage. The recorder also is the keeper of military discharge papers.

The shift to electronic filing has been the biggest change in the office, Vanderventer said.

"When I walked in (after being elected in 1996), we didn't even have a fax machine," she said.

Million of documents dating to 1844 are available electronically, but the old books are still around, too.

"No matter what the electronic bells and whistles, you can search for things the old-fashioned way, and that's the special part of this office," Vanderventer said.

She initially planned to run for the clerk's position but backed off. Her husband had retired and wanted to travel, and with a fourth computer conversion on tap, she decided to leave a career she loved.

"I feel terrific about the legacy I'm leaving (and) about Anthony (Vega) coming in," she said. "He's young, got fresh eyes. No regrets."

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Mary Ellen Vanderventer
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