CONNECTION CONVERSATIONS by Helen N. Pastis
Interview with Senator Gerald Hocker
I spoke with State Senator, Gerald Hocker, a true friend of the SCL, a philanthropist, businessman, and visionary.
Editor’s Note: At first, the Bethany Beach library was a very busy bookmobile. Then, it was a trailer. Soon, the library outgrew its space and needed to raise funds for the first building, Through the first capital campaign, the library opened, in 1994, its new and spacious quarters (10,000 square feet) on Kent Avenue. The library once again outgrew its space. Through a second capital campaign, the library reopened on April, 20, 2009 renovated and newly expanded to 22,000 square feet including a larger meeting room. FOSCL Board of Directors - all volunteers - continues its financial support of SCL for additional programming and materials beyond the scope of the county’s budget.
You have a long history being involved with FOSCL. How did you get involved with FOSCL and what role did you play? I was in the store one day, when two ladies came to me and said our goal is to build a new library. Would you consider being on the board and helping us get it done. I said I’d be glad to. So, they made me co-capital campaign chairman with Dean Phillips and with a team raised every penny, before breaking ground, to build a 10,000 square foot library. People would see me in my stores and comment, why are you building a library so big, and my comment was we can build up to that size and we have every penny, why wouldn’t you? At the Grand Opening and ribbon cutting, many people made comments about the many empty shelves. How are you ever going to fill it up? Well, twelve years later, we built another library twice as big. The Board came back and asked me to be capital campaign chairman with Senator George Bunting. George and I have always been friends. George was State Rep.
You co-chaired the second capital campaign to expand the library with then, Democrat Senator George Bunting. You had run against him in 2000. What was it like working with a previous opponent and how did your relationship make the campaign stronger? George and I have always been friends. My father, a Republican who held that position, helped George get elected. When I got talked into running for his seat in 2000, I won half the precinct. But on the day of election, we were still friends. I didn’t run against him; I ran for his seat. When he retired from the Senate seat, I was already a Representative, and he came to me and endorsed me. I also got endorsed by the Democrat Senator prior to George. I got endorsed by two democrat Senators. I think it’s because of my reputation; I know the area, I know the people, I didn’t play party politics. I did what I thought was right.
What role do libraries play in our communities today? Libraries play a very important role and help keep families together. In areas where there is no internet, libraries play a huge part to help patrons use the libraries’ computers. Even during Covid with virtual schools, a lot of kids had to go to the library parking lot to get WiFi for the computers they got from schools. Through the library, you can get resources from anywhere in the area. I pushed for the library to get a big meeting room for the community to use.
I just helped to get funding for Selbyville to expand its library. Governor Carney recently met with officials, and the state will be providing some of the “Covid money” for the Selbyville library expansion.
You’re quite the philanthropist. Tell us about your band, Gerald Hocker and the Jamboree Boys. How much have you donated over the 37 years and how were you formed? How long and what role does music play in your life? I started playing standup bass when I was in high school; the same instrument that my father used to play with his family. I played in the state’s band when I was in twelfth grade. I played the tuba from third grade on. I love to play country music. Then we started the Jamboree Boys. What started that was when my oldest son was in Little League ball, the field was terrible. They had no home run fence. We put together the springtime jamboree as a fundraiser, and it was very successful. So, I did it for them two to three years, and branched out from there. We had the 38th one planned when Covid-19 started. Hopefully, we’ll do it next year. In addition to myself, my two sons are in the band, and three friends – a vocalist, a rhythm guitar player, and a lead guitar player. Sometimes, my daughter, Beth Ann Cahall, a country singer who once had her own band, comes up from Nashville, Tennessee to sing. Over the 37 years, over one million dollars has been raised for different local organizations: Little Leagues for young kids, fire companies, Lions clubs. Every penny goes to the organization in need.
What are some of your fondest memories growing up in Southern Delaware? Emily and I both grew up here. When growing up here, I’d ride my bike from where I was raised on 26 in Millville and go to Bethany Beach, and knew who lived in every house, and I almost knew everybody I met. When summer was over, there was nobody in Bethany Beach. I made the comment in 1971 when I first bought the store that if I died in one of the aisles after Labor Day, they wouldn’t find me until Easter. That’s how slow it was. My wife ran the register, cut the lunch meat, wrapped the meat; there was no business in the winter time. Now it’s all changed.
How did you decide to go to the University of Delaware and receive a Business Administration degree at a time when that was uncommon? When I was in high school, I wanted to be a mortician. I worked with a funeral home to make sure that I like it. I couldn’t get into mortuary school without a year in college. So, I went to my guidance counselor. I wanted to go one year to the University of Delaware and then transfer. She said that no way would she get me into the University of Delaware; that I wouldn’t make it. With the help of others, I went to the University of Delaware; the second semester I made the dean’s list.
You were running the grocery business for 29 years when you decided to run for an elected office. What made you decide to run for office in 2000? I’d been in business for 30 years and saw so many rules and regulations that were killing a small business opportunity. Nobody today can do what my wife and I did 50 years ago. Just couldn’t afford to do it. We came here with nothing and we’re able to expand where we are now. I would like to see a lot of regulations and burdens [lifted] and the state to help people get started rather than stop people. There are very, very few business people in state government and it shows. That’s the only reason. I’m not there because I need a job. I’m not there because I need the income. I’m there because I’m trying to make a difference for other business people.
My family has been in business for 75 years in this area. My father with his brother-in-law had started the Millville hardware store. I was raised in the hardware business not the grocery store business. My uncle started the grocery business seven or eight years after the hardware business. My uncle had no children. I was a graduate of the University of Delaware. I had been through ACME Markets managers program and was going to be relocated. My uncle was in poor health, had no children, couldn’t hire the right kind of help, and he called to talk to me about buying him out. He gave me an opportunity I could not turn down. It was a much smaller store with grocery and hardware and five employees. That’s what got me in business for myself. If that opportunity hadn’t existed, I would still be working for ACME Markets. They were very good to me. The day they told me that they would make me a manager and move me is the day I gave them my notice. They wished me well and said if this doesn’t work out, you have a job to come back to. I felt very good about that because I did my job. I was in business for four years and decided to put on an addition. This was in 1971. In 1984, I built a brand-new hardware and moved it out of the supermarket. Expanded the supermarket and have gone to 300 employees.
The key to my success has been the employees that I have put around me. I have employees that stayed with me from high school until retirement. I have one employee who’s been with me for 46 years. I keep my good employees. They are the success to my business. I have tried to hire the best and keep the best.
What keeps you motivated as you start a new day? I can’t sit still. I’m 74 years old and have plans for other business expansions. We will open a banquet center until the job market improves and then convert it into a crab house. In March, I opened our new, expanded Hardware store.
I have a game plan and it’s all in my head. I decided I wanted a hardware; I knew exactly what I wanted; and then we put it on paper. I’ve had people come from everywhere to see my concept of having the hardware inside the supermarket on Route 26.
Even with three of my five children in the business, I’m still very involved.
Seldom do I watch TV unless it’s the news or a ball game. I take care of my own yard. I cut my own grass, trim my own shrubs. We got a place in Cambridge to get away and do my own work there.
I have 14 grandchildren- 10 boys and 4 girls.
What accomplishments are you most proud of as an elected official? Delaware had no Veteran’s home. I met with the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs and received his pledge to fund the Veteran’s home. My first year as an elected official I got federal funding and resistant governor support for a Veteran’s home in 2003.
I got legislation to get the Assawoman Canal dredged around 2008. It was a tremendous effort because of environmental opposition through the courts. Once the flow started, it helped clean up Little Assawoman Bay. I’ve spent hours and hours clamming, skiing and I know the bays. We used to have deep channels. We’re working to get that done again.
What challenges do you see facing Southern Delaware? Southern Delaware thrives on tourism. The challenge is not to lose that and to have the infrastructure to keep it here. Clean water – not only clean drinking water, clean ocean, clean bays, clean beaches. Right now. the biggest challenge is the work force. People can’t afford to live here and work. It’s such a retirement community; they’re not in the working world; and the price of land and houses is so high that it’s hard for someone to locate here and work. I had a meeting with a local developer to find ways to lower the cost of communities that are for work force housing only. Mobile homes are caught up in the supply chain shortages and those aren’t available now. It’s a rough time doing anything these days between labor and supply shortages.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time? From the time I was nine-years old, I started rabbit hunting with my father. I’ve always had beagles. I love running my dogs. I have 11 right now. I’m more of a rabbit runner than a hunter. From the middle of October to the middle of April, I run my dogs. They don’t kill anything, they run. I breed and raise my own dogs.
What advice would you give to our youth today in leading a fulfilling life? Get involved in the church, stay with the right crowd, and keep your parents involved. Every child should be in the work force as early as possible because you learn so much. But there are places out there that you shouldn’t want your child to work. I have helped a lot of kids. I had a girl working for me and she wanted to be a pharmacist like my daughter is. She was accepted into the same school as my daughter. When she was a Junior or Senior her parents split up and she couldn’t afford to go to school. Neither one of her parents would fund it. She asked me to put her back on the working schedule. I said to her you’re going to go to school. We’ll find you the funding. With the help of myself, other locals, and the governor that I called, she is now a pharmacist. And there’s other kids like that I’ve helped.
Tell us something very few people know about you. Emily and I have been married for 52 years. I was in the 10th grade and she was in the 7th grade. One day she looked up and I winked at her. She and I really are the only ones we ever dated. We are still best friends.
God’s played a big part in my life. The night she graduated [from high school] was on Friday, and we had the wedding rehearsal. The next day we got married, and on the following day, it was Sunday, we moved to our apartment in Newark. I had 2 more years of school [at the University of Delaware] left. We wanted a child but I wanted to be out of school first. On the day of my very last final exam Emily went into labor and had our first child. I missed the exam. After it was all over, I went to see the professor and he knew me from shopping at the ACME store. He also was leaving the university and it was his last class. So, he looked at my grades and said I would have to get 100 to get an “A” in the course; I’d have to flunk it pretty bad to get a “C”; are you ok with a “B” because that’s probably what you’d get anyway? He marked it off, and I was done with college that second. That second. I just had a new baby and done with college. Can you imagine how I felt? The weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. The September of that year my uncle called me and made me the offer to buy his business; October 1971, I moved back down here and took over the business. It all worked out and we’re still together.
Anything else you would like for people to know? The future is out there; it’s up to you to get it. I was told I’d never make it in business; I was too young, didn’t have enough experience; I scared my parents to death with how far I went into debt for this addition and that addition. They got used to it and quit worrying about it. My father didn’t want me to buy out my uncle, he thought I was making good money with ACME, but I soon proved myself.
Senator Hocker is a true example of that; when most people take it easy, he goes for a new challenge; he isn’t slowing down anytime soon. As he said, “There’s only one way to coast and that’s downhill, and I don’t want to go downhill.”