Rep. Gerald Hocker knows the 38th District — he was born and raised in Millville, and he hasn’t strayed too far over the years.
He attended the Lord Baltimore School for all 12 years of his primary education, and that’s where he met his wife, Emily.
“She was a seventh-grader, I was in 10th grade,” Hocker said. “I remember seeing her in study hall one day, and I winked at her.”
Apparently, she winked back, and they were married when Emily graduated from high school. They’re still together 35 years later, as husband and wife and also as business partners.
His father, Wilbert, was a state representative as well, and a local businessman — he ran the Millville hardware store (where Miller’s Creek is now) with his brother-in-law.
“I was raised in the hardware business,” Hocker said. He worked carpentry with Frank Rickards (of George K. Rickards & Son), making some expense money over summer vacations and on weekends, into college.
Hocker and Rickards built a home for his father, in 1964, and Rickards built the home he’s living in now.
Fresh out of high school, Hocker had big plans for a rather unusual career. He wanted to be a mortician.
However, he couldn’t get into mortician’s school without a year of college under his belt.
He said his guidance counselor didn’t give him high hopes of getting into the University of Delaware, but his father pulled a few strings and he was able to go.
“I was going to work at the funeral home part time, but being an apprentice and not making any money, and being newly married (as of 1969) it just wasn’t happening,” Hocker said.
He forged ahead at the U of D, earning his business/economics degree by 1971.
He worked fulltime at two Acme stores (in Newark) along the way, and his employers rewarded him with a few scholarships for his efforts.
Meanwhile, back in Sussex County, Hocker spent summers working for his uncle, Jake, who ran the grocery store on Cedar Neck Road.
“When his health wouldn’t allow him to continue running the business, he gave me an opportunity I couldn’t resist,” Hocker recalled.
The rest is history. They started out in October 1971 with five employees.
In 1980, they bought the corner at Routes 26 and 17 and now, at the peak of the summer season, Hocker employs more than 200 workers.
As the business grew over the years, so did the family. Shelley was born in 1971, and is now a pharmacist at Happy Harry’s.
Gerry followed two years later, and then Melissa two years after him. They’re both involved with the family business, as are two son-in-laws.
Beth Ann came along six years after Melissa, and then Gregory a few years later.
Beth Ann is pursuing a musical career (check out her Web site, www.bethcayhall.com) and Greg is training to become a police officer.
“We always wanted a big family,” Hocker said. He said his wife had been an only child, and wanted to make sure any kids they had would have brothers or sisters.
The Hocker family owns four businesses in all, between hardware, grocery and deli operations. Hocker is also co-owner of Cea-Dag Apartments in Dagsboro, and recently purchased Bethany Crest, a manufactured home park next to his businesses on Route 26.
“People who know me know I have plenty to do here,” Hocker smiled. “I’m at the point now that I could slow down, but I’d been hoping to go to Dover if I could make a difference for Sussex County.”
Hocker said he’d often accompanied his father to the state house in the 1960s, and he’d always intended on getting involved in local politics at some point in his life. He just wasn’t ready until a few years ago.
He first ran for representative in 2002, defeating popular incumbent Shirley Price by a margin of 50-odd votes.
Now, back for his second term, Hocker said he was starting to learn the ropes at Legislative Hall.
“I know the faces,” he said. “I know the formalities, how the game’s played. I have some idea about what I can get passed and what I can’t, and who I have to talk with to get what I want,” he said.
“Being in the House majority and working with Sen. (George Howard) Bunting, and him being in the Senate majority, I think I have been able to make a difference,” Hocker pointed out.
He said he was still pushing for some kind of east-west bypass route, if not to Route 13, at least to Route 113.
“I saw what happened in 1962 (a terrible nor’easter), and that was in March,” he said. “Next time, it might not be the off-season.”
He suggested his efforts to promote an east-west route could tie in nicely with Sen. Bunting’s work on north-south corridors.
Closer to home, traffic congestion on Route 26 remains a bone of contention.
“I remember the days when every car that went by, you knew who they were, every house, you knew who lived there,” Hocker reflected. “Times have changed, but Route 26 hasn’t seen many changes since then, other than turn lanes mainly put in by businesses or developers.
“The state needs to really consider — at least — a three-lane road so we can get two lanes heading away from the beach if we ever need to evacuate for a hurricane,” Hocker emphasized.
He said the postal service had been similarly neglected, and he was fighting to keep it at the top of the list.
The Assawoman Canal is another project Hocker holds dear. He expressed a hope that the appeal of the dredging permit would wrap up soon, and that work could begin there.
Environmentalists have questioned the scientific rigor of impact studies, and the underlying premise that deepening the canal would improve water quality.
However, Hocker maintains a stance based in empirical evidence, rather than theoretical modeling.
He remembered diving off every bridge spanning the canal, into waters that were over his head.
He said he remembered a flow through the canal when it had been deeper. “You could sit on a surfboard and it would take you all the way from one end to the other,” he said.
“I’ve seen it when it was almost empty, and I’ve seen it when it was full to the top,” Hocker said. “That water had to go somewhere.
“You can’t say a deeper canal didn’t help the Little Assawoman Bay,” he said. “It was much cleaner then than it is now. They used to throw fatback nets, there used to be spot, there was a fellow that used to commercial clam — all that has disappeared.”
Of course, Hocker said the disappearance of the seven wooden bridges on Route 1 probably also hurt water quality. He remembered certain high tides washing ocean water into the bays, but said that just didn’t happen anymore.
“We need to get more exchange than we presently have,” Hocker pointed out. “The old-timers say we need to cut another inlet.”
This would likely be another opportunity for bipartisanship. Sen. Bunting has been studying an inlet alternative himself — pipes under Route 1 sending ocean water across to refresh the Rehoboth Bay.
(South Bethany Council Member Lloyd Hughes has been developing a model along those lines as well.)
Hocker supported the efforts of county council regarding central sewer around the Inland Bays, although he suggested Cedar Neck should have been done years ago.
“I think we need to get the outflows out of the bay as quickly as possible, and look at more spray irrigation of crops,” he said. That’s worked well in pulp land (pine forests), and we need to be looking at more of that.”
Regarding open space, Hocker remained consistent in his philosophy: “The best way to preserve open space is to keep our farmers farming,” he said.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Farming’s a tough business even in the best of years, and he recognized certain crops were going for less today than they were 30 years ago.
“I talk to some people, and they tell me they couldn’t make it if they didn’t sell lots every year,” he said. “We need to find alternate uses for these crops.”
Mid-Atlantic Biodiesel is building a processing facility in Clayton, Del. for soy biodiesel, which may give bean farmers a boost.
Hocker admitted horse farms had gotten a kick from the casinos, too, although he said he opposed gambling.
He also opposed the government pay raise, another nine percent atop last year’s cost of living increase. “I don’t think there are too many businesses that could pass that expense on to their consumers, and I look at this job as if I’m running my own business,” he said.
Hocker has hired on an assistant at legislative hall this year, a former employee in the office at his store on Cedar Neck Road — Ruth Ann Marvel.
“My constituents are lucky I have her,” he said. “When you ask her to do something, she gets it done.”
Hocker also acknowledged some of the shared staffers at Legislative Hall — Margaret Moore-Dean, Eleanor Hughes and Nancy Roberto.
He will have plenty on his agenda this session, but Hocker said he’d still find time to practice the bass guitar for the upcoming Springtime Jamboree, scheduled for April 22-23.
This will be the 23rd year for the country/bluegrass performance spiced with comedy.
Hocker said the Jamboree would benefit the Lower Sussex Little League this year, with funds going to offset Senior League Softball World Series expenses.