Hocker’s farewell: ‘My heart is with Millville’

It was an emotional Tuesday evening in Millville, as outgoing Mayor Gerald “Gerry” Hocker Jr. retired from the Millville Town Council on Jan. 12, after more than a dozen years.

“It’s really hard to step away from something that you love. I’ve just enjoyed it. There’s never a good time — there’s always unfinished business — but we were able to achieve a lot,” he said. “There’s always going to be changes, but I think, moving forward, Millville is on track to be a great town. I just absolutely love living in Millville. I loved being a part of the Millville council.”

Hocker, who served on the Millville town council for 14 years, will now be starting a new chapter in his life, as he and his family will be moving outside town limits, to a nearby unincorporated area of Sussex County.

“We had been planning to build on family land for a very, very long time. Then the opportunity came to me to buy my grandparents’ place. So that has so much sentimental value to me because it was my grandparents’ home; my grandfather built it in 1963. I was there all the time as a young kid,” he said.

“When we were first married, our plan at that point was to live there for five years and then build on some other family land. Fifteen years later, we did. We absolutely loved living there. We loved being a part of the Millville community.”

Hocker said he even postponed moving to stay on the council until a few important items on the council’s docket were completed.

“The last six months have been very critical steps for the future of Millville to come,” he said. “A big achievement was purchasing the property for a park. We’ve been wanting to do that for years. That opportunity came to us, and we were very excited. I wanted to be a part of that, to see that completed.

“The next biggest achievement of my time as mayor was being a part of the committee for the planning stages to build Troop 4A for the Delaware State Police out of our restricted funds. The Delaware State Police were absolutely thrilled that we were doing that for them, and I was on the committee for the planning stages.

“We, at the time, had to go through the bidding process, the contract phase, and at our last meeting, we awarded the contract to the company. The construction phase is going to be exciting, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a part of that.”

In the last few weeks, the Town has also dealt with some personal hardship, with the sudden passing of councilman Harry Kent in December.

“We’ve had some things to deal with… We had staff that was dealing with some health problems in their family, and that wasn’t the time to leave,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with the passing of Harry, which the whole council took hard. That wasn’t the time to leave either…

“Not that there’s ever a good time to leave something that you love, but knowing my term was up anyway, and having completed some of the top, immediate priorities of the council, I knew this was the moment.”

Hocker was elected to serve on the Millville Town Council on March 3, 2002, and sworn in on March 12, 2002, when he was 27 years old.

“At the time, I had someone call me and ask me if I’d ever be interested in something like that. And, at that time, I wanted to get involved in the community where I lived. I grew up in the unincorporated area of Ocean View, where there was no town council or anything,” he said.

“This was the first time in my life I had lived in a town where there was a local government. I think, growing up and always being a part of the Republican Party and hearing what goes on, with Dad [state Sen. Gerald Hocker] being active over the years, I just decided to try it.

“The first thing I did was get a tax list of every resident in the town, and I personally called everyone on that list. The voter turnout was tremendous. Some of the council, after I got elected, kind of jokingly stated that I had called everybody in the town and that they had never anticipated that many people would vote based on the registration at that time.”

That year, Hocker received 58 votes of the 75 cast, with citizens being given the opportunity to vote for two of the three candidates.

“I’m so thankful I had residents in 2002 who put their faith and trust in me at a young age and were willing to give me the opportunity.

“At that point, I had no experience in politics other than growing up in a house where my grandfather was a state representative in the early ’70s and my father was very active in the Republican Party, with a goal at some point to be a state representative, as my grandfather was. Dad was elected [as state representative] the same year I was. I was elected in March 2002, and he was elected in November 2002.”

Growing responsibility, along with the town

Over the years, Hocker filled various positions on the council, from councilperson to council secretary and deputy mayor and, since 2011, as mayor.

“I’ve very thankful that Millville did not have term limits, because it would have broken my heart to have had to have gotten off at the end of a term because of a term limit. Luckily, the Charter didn’t have term limits. It’s been remarkable seeing the growth of the town and being a part of that.”

The finances of the Town have improved significantly during Hocker’s tenure. In March of 2002, when he first joined council, the Town had a total of $87,135.22. As of Jan. 12, 2016, the Town’s coffers have $7,722,492.

“At the time I got on council, we had our Charter, but we had very few laws within the town… We went from basically a cubicle of a town hall, with no running water and no restroom, to a beautiful town hall that was paid for within a year, with transfer tax money.”

Hocker said he’s been told that Millville has the third-lowest tax rate in the state of Delaware.

“To live in a community like this, this close to the beach, and have such a low tax rate compared to neighboring towns — that’s remarkable. Over the 14 years I was on council, we only had to readjust taxes one time, to get in line with the County tax base.”

Working with various councils over the years has been another great pleasure of serving Millville, said Hocker.

“One of the most remarkable things I can say is, in the 14 years that I’ve been a part of the Town of Millville, we never once had a council that didn’t get along. That is remarkable. Not very many Towns can say that,” he said. “So many Towns have just about fallen apart, or their objective of a meeting is to bash each other. You read it in the paper, and never once did Millville have those kinds of headlines.

“I love the way Millville does it. All five are equal, and then amongst those five we appoint who we think is best for each particular position. But it was never about a title. The great thing about being on a local council is you don’t have to play the political card. You’re just serving the people. That’s your main objective.”

Hocker said working with so many different people on council, with vast backgrounds, has positively impacted the town.

“There was always a joy. We always thought things through. We always appreciated and respected each other’s views and opinions and recommendations. If we did disagree, we respectfully disagreed… It was very respectful. I think that’s one of the joys that kept me on there for so long.”

With Hocker retiring from his seat on the council, there will no longer be a sitting member of council who was born and raised in the area.

“Since 1906, when the town was incorporated, there’s always been a local presence on the board… and I’m the last of that. Unless they find somebody who was born and raised here to fill one of the two seats,” he said of the vacant seats on the council, which now number two.

“There are people who are moving here who are great. But as far as being a local, born and raised here, with ties to the community here, I’m the last of that. And, over the years, it’s kept reducing down…

“I know where we came from, and I always had a goal and dream of where we wanted Millville to be. I hope I can leave and the Millville residents think I did a good job. I feel like I did the best job I could do.”

The Millville residents, he said, “are phenomenal,” adding that he has loved his time serving them and looking out for the future of the town.

“There are just a select few who come to the meetings, but when there are important issues, there are residents that come because they’ve moved here and they love where they moved and have an interest in making sure the council acts on their behalf, as well. It’s great that there are a lot of residents I’ve gotten to know.

“I’ve loved constituent service,” he added. “When it gets right down to it, you’re elected to do a job, you’re elected to help the people and do what’s best for your position and the area you serve. I’ve always looked out for Millville. My philosophy from Day 1 was always ‘treat others the way you would want to be treated and put yourself in other people’s shoes,’” he said.

“With that, I like to think I’ve made the right decisions for the future of the town. I always thought about the long-term effect, no matter what the ordinance was or project was that we were voting on or considering. I would always look at the long-term picture. Is this something once we enact, is it something the town can handle and take care of, and be a part of forever?”

Staff praised for contributions

Praising the Town’s staff and volunteers, Hocker said the town is where it is today in large part because of the wonderful people who work there.

“We went from having no employees when I was elected in March 2002. As we grew and build the town hall, we hired our first employee. Through the hiring phases, anytime we increased our staff or had an opening for a position, we always found the best applicant. Our mix of staff has been absolutely remarkable… The job of serving on the council is easy when you have the staff that we have.”

He added that two specific hires stand out in his mind the most — one being Town Manager Debbie Botchie.

“When you give people opportunities and you look back and think, ‘Wow, what a great step that was.’ One of them was Debbie Botchie. She started out as our clerk,” he said. “Where many towns would look for someone with experience, we gave someone the opportunity who had no town manager experience. But she knew the town and she had worked there and worked under the prior town manager. We all knew she could do it, and, boy, what a blessing it has been to have Debbie Botchie as a town manager.

“Being a mayor with a town manager like Debbie is an unbelievable experience. She has been extremely helpful.”

Another standout moment for Hocker was hiring Town Solicitor Seth Thompson, at the recommendation of attorney Terry Jaywork.

“At the time, we had been through two other attorneys. Each attorney stepped away for their own reasons; they never parted on a bad note. We had hired Terry Jaywork because we wanted someone with municipal experience.”

Hocker said that, after Jaywork attended a number of meetings, he was candid with the Town about wanting to take a step back from his workload, but saw the town was poised for growth.

“He was at a point where he had hired a new attorney and came to us and asked if we would be willing to have Seth Thompson represent the Town. He spoke very highly of him. ‘I will assure you he will do a fantastic job for the town of Millville, and I’ll be working with him initially. I’ll still be a part of it, between the two of us.’

“And we were willing to do it. We knew Terry Jaywork, and we knew his background and that he was great with municipal government. We did not know Seth. We put faith in Terry’s recommendation and hired Seth Thompson, and that’s been a pleasure. I hope Millville will continue to have him represent the town for years to come. He’s young and up to speed on all the current laws. He’s just been a true asset to the Town. He doesn’t live in the town, but he enjoys the town.”

Hometown boy

The town of Millville has always been a special place to the Hocker family, as Hocker’s father grew up in town, in the house next door to his own Millville home.

“My father grew up in the house on the corner — we call it ‘the Briar Patch House.’ Then, somewhere along the line, that corner house left the family and was purchased by the Cole family. Someone must’ve been looking out for us, because the year I got married and bought my grandparents’ place, the corner property came for sale, and my parents were able to buy that, to put it back in the family,” he shared.

“Our ties to the community — we absolutely love this community. Our family has been in retail business in this community since 1947 — 69 years. My grandfather started Millville Hardware in the building where Miller’s Creek is now. That was his hardware store. Millville is where the Hocker family got its start in the retail business.”

Now, Hocker’s has grown to include the Supercenter, gas station and convenience store, as well as the smaller G&E grocery store and adjacent hardware store.

“The loyal support we’ve had over the years… there’s just so much to be thankful for, for this whole entire community. Leaving this community was very, very hard for me. I think that’s why it’s taken us 15 years to do it.”

Hocker continued to praise the Millville community and its surrounding areas for being so good to him and his family over the years.

“I’ve absolutely loved it. My heart is with Millville… this whole area, really. The community has been very good to my family over the years. This area keeps us in business, with all the national chains wanting to come in here, and through it all, we continue to grow and we just can’t thank the community enough. And a lot of them turn around and support us. I see a lot of our Millville residents in our family’s businesses, and that’s a pleasure.”

The past 14 years have been a “remarkable opportunity,” said Hocker, adding that he hopes that, one day in the future, he will be able to serve Millville again.

“When you have to step away from something you truly, truly love, it is so hard. It was kind of a triple-whammy for me, moving out of the house, moving out of town and leaving council.

“Certainly, if the opportunity ever comes at a later date in my life that I have the opportunity to be a part of an elected position, I would certainly hope it’s a position that could represent the town of Millville, as well. That would be a joy. I’ll always have a place in my heart for Millville.”

As for the future of the town, Hocker said he encourages residents to continue taking an interest in the town and consider serving on the council.

“My hope is whoever replaces Harry and whoever replaces me has an equal mindset of looking out for the future of the town and is willing to work and be a part of a group for the benefit of the town. If that’s the case, Millville will continue to prosper,” he said.

He, too, will continue to take an interest in Millville, he promised. Although he will no longer be a permanent resident of the town, Hocker said he will remain a property owner.

“I’ll be stopping by to visit the staff and council… I’ll just get to come to the meetings and give them a hard time,” he said with a laugh.

At Tuesday’s meeting, which was concluded with Hocker announcing his retirement from council, he was honored with a tribute from the Delaware State House of Representatives, presented to him by his father (now-state Sen. Hocker), thanking him for his “remarkable leadership and his contributions that have made Millville a better community.”

Hocker also received a tribute from the Delaware Senate, which noted, “Through his distinguished tenure as mayor, he has tirelessly shared of his time and talent and has gained the respect and high regard of all who have the good fortune to know him. Sen. Hocker finds it most befitting the Senate recognize this fine gentleman so dear to his heart and his many contributions to that special locale whose motto, ‘A beautiful way of life,’ says it all.”

Hocker said that he would not have been able to spend a third of his life serving the Town of Millville if it wasn’t for the love and support of his entire family.

“To my family — thank you all for the confidence and encouragement. I thank my parents for the confidence I first received when I filed to serve on council,” he said. “I thank my wife, Carey, for always supporting me. You gave me the words of encouragement when we were newly married and decided to run for town council.

“No matter what meeting I was having or function I needed to attend, my family have always been supportive of whatever I was doing. A special thank-you to my children, Maryn and Mitchell, for understanding when I was not home, due to having to attend the many meetings. Most importantly, I thank God for leading my life down this remarkable path of serving this town.”