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In Defense of a Noble Calling : Notaries: Not everyone can make the grade. First, you must master your name and address.

November 17, 1994|GILBERT CRANBERG | Gilbert Cranberg, former editor of the Des Moines Register's editorial pages, is a notary public who teaches journalism at the University of Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Pardon me if I boast a bit about being a newly anointed notary public. Yes, I've joined a select corps of about 40,000 Iowans whose notarial acts, in the words of an authority, "must be performed with integrity, diligence and skill." Or as Iowa Secretary of State Elaine Baxter wrote when she sent me my commission, ours is a public service "essential to the smooth operation of business, the judicial system and other important institutions."

Actually, I wasn't thinking about any of that when Hugh Culverhouse set me on the path to notary publichood. Culverhouse, not a household name but not a nobody either, was a Florida philanthropist and owner of the spectacularly failed Tampa Bay Buccaneers professional football team when he died recently. In his obituary, the New York Times listed his claims to fame:

"Mr. Culverhouse was a tax lawyer, real-estate developer, business executive and notary public."

I figured that if an achiever like Culverhouse (his fortune was estimated at $360 million) could earn notoriety as a notary and still find time to be a tycoon, it was a craft to consider.

A lot easier said than done.

To become a notary in Iowa, you have to have been alive for at least 18 years and be able to fill in the blanks of an intricate six-question application.

The form tests the would-be notary's ability to print or type not only his or her full name but also the address, including ZIP code and county.

Next comes a multiple-choice question (check one): Are you a resident of Iowa? Or are you a resident of a state adjoining Iowa, and employed in Iowa?

Finally, the applicant must sign his or her name and write a check for $30 (good for three years of notarizing).

Successful applicants are sent impressive certificates sprinkled with "emoluments" and "legally appertainings" that authorize them to display their shingles.

Mostly, notaries have to be adept at the authentication arts. In an era of multiple-personality disorder, cross-dressing, sex-change surgery and bogus IDs, people aren't always who they appear to be. On the notary public rests the responsibility to verify a person's true identity and attest to it. So, if you're looking for unsung front-line fighters in the war against fraud and other crime in the suites, don't overlook your neighborhood notary.

Actually, there would be a lot less misrepresentation and distrust in the world if notaries were utilized more often, not just when the law compels it. Take the manuscript for this article. Before I sent it to the editor, I had it notarized; this way, the editor could be confident that it was written by me and not by some impostor.

So here's to more employment and recognition for notaries public, surely among the least-appreciated professionals.

Allow me to illustrate, with a personal experience, the modest regard in which we're held. My wife is an accommodating sort, but when I instructed her recently to be sure to have included in my obituary the words, "He was a notary public," she glared, "I will not!"

It pains me to disclose marital discord, but I pray that editors will heed me and accord notaries the send-off we deserve.

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