Longtime public servant Phyllis Gatson retiring
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Phyllis Gatson, one of Kanawha County's most beloved elected officials, is retiring after more than 35 years of public service.
Gatson, who served as a Kanawha County magistrate for 18 years and as county assessor since 1995, will see her last day in office on Monday.
"She is an unbelievable person," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. "She absolutely cannot be replaced."
Gatson, 84, got her first job at McCrory's Department Store at age 16, in a time when it was not common for women to work outside the home. "I always wanted to work," the longtime public servant recalled. "I don't know any better."
A product of a politically conscious family, Gatson was encouraged to enter politics, helping organize the Kanawha County chapter of the Federation of Democratic Women in 1971. She was elected to the office of Kanawha County magistrate in 1976.
She held the position for 18 years, 11 of them as chief magistrate. She was president of the West Virginia Magistrate's Association from 1983 to 1987.
"Magistrate court was exciting all the time," Gatson remembered. "You never knew what you were going to get, or when you were going to get it."
Friends and family say Gatson has always led by example, and is known for her compassion. A former jail inmate never forgot that Gatson sent him to jail, but then fed his family while he was incarcerated.
"I couldn't stand to think that a child was going hungry because their dad was in jail," Gatson said. "I've always liked helping people. I didn't think it was all about putting people in jail. I liked to try to keep them out of jail."
Gatson's time as a magistrate is well remembered by courthouse staff. At a retirement party on Dec. 11, Chief Circuit Judge Duke Bloom dedicated a magistrate courtroom in Gatson's name.
"I think Phyllis embodies anything anyone could want in a public servant," said Bloom, adding words like "hard-working," "dedicated" and "conscientious" to her attributes.
It was Bloom who broke a tie on the Kanawha County Commission to appoint Gatson as Assessor Kemp Melton's successor. "Probably one of the best votes I ever made on the county commission was to appoint her to that unexpired term," he said. "Everybody just loves Phyllis. It's as simple as that."
Gatson took the same spirit of compassion and friendliness with her to the Assessor's Office. First appointed in 1995 to take over the unexpired term of Melton, who had just been elected mayor of Charleston, Gatson was elected in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Only health concerns kept her from running again this year.
"I don't want to say I'm nosy," she said, but concedes that she is fascinated by county tax records. She likes to learn about taxpayers' lives and their families.
"I like to help people when I can," she said. "Financially, I can't always give them money, but I can point them in the right direction."
Gatson's daughter is Circuit Clerk Cathy Gatson, whom Phyllis encouraged to run for circuit clerk in 1986. The younger Gatson thinks her mother's service goes beyond helping the public.
"She's been a good role model for a lot of women in local politics," Cathy Gatson said. "I'm going to miss her very graceful presence around here."
But Phyllis Gatson said she will not be leaving courthouse society entirely.
"Who wants to sit in a house by yourself all day?" she said. "I'll be down here a lot."
Phyllis Gatson said she plans to spend several days a week at the courthouse, helping out.
"She's got a job here," said newly elected Assessor Sallie Robinson. "I still need her advice."
Reach Rusty Marks at email@example.com or 304-348-1215.