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Harry L.W. Hopkins is in the business of death and has been for much his life.

He reads obituaries religiously. He has worked in funeral homes and he’s sold headstones, which eventually earned him the nickname, “Tombstone.”

As Harford County’s register of wills, Hopkins does “a little bit of everything,” he says.

“We open estates, collect money, report to the comptroller, send notices to the papers,” Hopkins said. “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.”

As a widower, Hopkins has sympathy for those who have also lost their significant others.

“Women come in who’ve lost their husbands and I know what that’s like because my wife died of cancer,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins, who was first elected in 1986, is currently serving his sixth four-year term, which ends Dec. 1, 2010, and he plans on that being his last day on the job.

The register of wills is an elected position. Hopkins said he will not run for re-election next year.

“I hope I live long enough to serve 24 years,” Hopkins, who turns 83 on May 7, said. “I’m not going to run, I’m getting too old. I’ve just about had it.”

Hopkins was a lifelong Democrat until the year before the 2006 election, when he became a Republican after longtime friends convinced him he might not be able to win as a Democrat. He withstood a strong primary challenge and won re-election.

Hopkins has made no secret of his plans to retire, and a number of prominent people from both political parties are said to be eying a run for the office. It’s possible the race to succeed Hopkins could be one of the most spirited in the 2010 election cycle.

The job carries a lot of responsibility and an annual salary of $93,900, which is set by the state Board of Public Works, within a maximum approved by the legislature. The current maximum is $98,500; a bill in 2009 General Assembly session raise the minimum to $114,500 was withdrawn in committee.

As register of wills, Hopkins is responsible for appointing personal representatives to administer decedents’ estates and for overseeing the proper and timely administration of these proceeding, according to the official Web site of the state’s registers.

His office also assists and advises the public in the preparation of all required forms in addition to maintaining and preserving the permanent record of all proceedings.

Hopkins also serves as the clerk of the orphans’ court, tracks estates and refers delinquent matters to the court.

The register of wills is responsible for determining and collecting inheritance taxes, probate fees and court costs. Hopkins also audits accounts of personal representatives and guardians, mail various notices and court orders to interested persons and verifying compliance with court orders.

“I don’t look forward to being my own customer,” Hopkins joked. “I rather enjoy opening these estates.”

Before becoming register of wills, Hopkins was an independent insurance agent and later judge at the orphans’ court for 12-1/2 years. The orphans court handles estate issues, included contested wills.

“It was time to change jobs. I enjoyed it,” Hopkins said. “I had a lot of fun with [the court].”

Hopkins estimated there are about 18,000 wills in safekeeping in his office.

“If a will is in here, we take the death certificate, run it through the computer and go back and open it,” Hopkins explained. “I do not open it until you’d be sitting here. It never leaves here. It’s here forever until we run out of space.”

Hopkins also suggested people bring their wills to his office.

“The main thing is that they get that will in here,” Hopkins said. “It’s a mess in here when you don’t have wills. We’ve had some fighting families.”

Death of loved ones can also bring out the ugly side of humanity.

“We had a family in here fighting over a 10-year-old Christmas tree,” Hopkins said “You don’t realize how mean people can get. I tell them to get a lawyer. If it’s complicated, get a lawyer. It’s better to watch your lawyer, too.”

Also in Hopkins’ office are records of more than 41,800 deceased people.

“What’s nice about dead people is that they don’t give you a lot of mouth,” Hopkins said. “It’s the live ones that will kill you.”

When he’s not busy opening estates, Hopkins is an avid movie collector.

“I collect videos. I own about 3,000, I’m a movie nut,” Hopkins, who lists “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan” as his favorite films, said.

It should come as no surprise Hopkins enjoys war movies. When he was 17, he enlisted in the Army Air Force reserve corps. During his time in the Army as a corporal, Hopkins received a Good Conduct medal and World War II Victory medal, among other awards, before he was discharged in August 1946.

Hopkins said he joined the military because of his uncle, Harry L. Webb, for whom he is named. Mr. Webb, a first lieutenant for the U.S. Army, died on Oct. 25, 1918 in France during World War I.

“He was always in front of his men,” Hopkins said.

After his tenure as register of wills ends, Hopkins isn’t sure what he will do.

“I have absolutely no idea,” Hopkins said. “I’ll read the obituaries and eat breakfast.”

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