Four decades of service to Williston

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Gerald Hethcoat says farewell to public service

By Carolyn Ten Broeck, Editor

 Before he was Williston's mayor, R. Gerald Hethcoat was a farm boy, a student, a young man battling polio, a clinical laboratory scientist, a law enforcement officer, a firefighter and a city councilman.

Tuesday night, he added yet another title to his vast repertoire – retired.

April 10 marked the end of nearly 40 years of public service and almost all of it to the city and people of Williston.


Born and reared in Blountville, Tenn., Hethcoat was the oldest of five children born to a truck driving father and a homemaker mother.

Located near Bristol in the eastern part of the state, Blountville was an agricultural community and Hethcoat learned early the meaning of hard work.

In addition to working their own farm, the Hethcoats often pitched in to help others in the area with their work.

Summers, he remembered last week, were often spent on an aunt's farm in North Carolina.

"I've done my share of picking cotton, watermelon and peanuts," he said.

His mother told him as a toddler that he began "drag ging his leg" and while polio was suspected, it wasn't clearly diagnosed until he was 10 years old.

By then the damage was done and for the next four to five years, he spent most of his waking time in hospitals trying to correct what had been taken from him.

Much of that time was spent at a Shriners' Hospital for Children in Greenville, S.C., where at least six surgeries were done.

His right leg was significantly shorter than his left, causing an unnatural gait. And while the right leg stopped growing, his left did not.

"For one year," he said, "I was given something to stop bone growth in the left leg. Had the doctors not done that, it would have been at least four inches longer than my other leg."

There came a point, he said, when doctors suggested that he have part of the bone removed in the left leg to make it match his right.

"I said, 'Noooo. I've got one good leg and I'll keep it that way.' And my dad didn't want it either. So I went with a two-inch built-up shoe instead."

Despite the disparity in his leg length, he never felt handicapped, he said.

"I never felt like I couldn't do what I wanted to do," Hethcoat said. "Except sports. I always wanted to play high school sports, so that may be the only time I felt the least bit handicapped."


By the time high school came to an end, Hethcoat was eligible for a college scholarship.

"But I had no idea what I wanted to do," he said.

An aptitude test concluded he was best suited for three things: a medical technician, a fireman and a policeman.

"My dad made the decision for me," he said. And he was off to Asheville, N.C. to study medical technology.

A year later he transferred to a school in Nashville and one week after graduating, he was offered a job at Monroe Regional Hospital in Ocala.

That was in the mid 1960s and now, 50 years later, Hethcoat says the thought of returning to his Tennessee mountain home never crossed his mind.

Especially after he met his now lovely bride, Billie.


It was a job at the Williston hospital that brought Hethcoat to town, but it was fate that had him renting an apartment that was beside his future in-laws that September of 1973.

Mrs. Hethcoat was a young widow with three little girls. A fourth child, a son, had been tragically killed on Cedar Key on Christmas Day. Hethcoat said he spoke often with her father and her daughters when they played in the yard. Eventually, he got around to talking to her and the rest, as they say, is history.

The couple married, had another daughter and he continued to work at the hospital for over 12 years when Alachua General took over the Williston Hospital.

With a family and additional reponsibilities, a promotion was accepted and soon he was off to Gainesville where he would ulimately finish his career supervising and running labs for the hospital that eventually was taken over by Shands.


Parallel with his career advancements was his ingratiation into the Williston community. He became a volunteer firefighter, attended the First Baptist Church and cared for his family.

And then he went to a city council meeting.

Another gentleman in attendance addressed the council with his complaint.

"They were treating him awful," Hethcoat said, with just a hint of his East Tennessee drawl slipping through. "So I spoke on his behalf." The city attorney admonished Hethcoat and the die was cast.

"I did something no one expected," he said. "I bought brochures and I went and knocked on just about every door in Williston. I rode up and down streets and if I saw people in their yards, I stopped and talked with them.

"I'd meet people in the grocery store or at the gas pump and I'd introduce myself. It's the same thing I've done every time I ran for office and had opposition."

For 20 years, he sat on the Williston City Council and lobbied for the people of his adopted hometown. And then he learned he could retire and draw a pension.

So he did. And ran for county commission and was defeated.


But then the mayoral seat was up for grabs when the sitting mayor told him he wasn't going to run again.

Hethcoat made his way to city hall, filled out his paperwork and was ready to run. Then the mayor called him and told him he'd changed his mind and he would be seeking re-election.

"Too late," Hethcoat told him. "I've already turned in my paperwork."

He won and what followed was 17 years of supervising the police and fire departments and speaking on behalf of his constituents while traveling nationwide to represent Williston and stand up for its needs.


The best part of his 37-plus year political career, he said, are the people.

"Everyone has treated me so nice," he said. "The people have been very kind to me. Anything I ever did, I always asked if the people would enjoy it or benefit from it. I always wanted to ensure everything was the right fit and I was always for anything that made us better."

Anyone ever meeting Hethcoat and inquiring as to his health gets the standard reply, "Best you ever saw."

It's that eternal optimism and friendliness that marks his personality with setbacks and discouragement pushed to the back burner.

The only real disappointment, he admits, is not seeing one dream become reality.

"I wish we had a Walmart here," he said.

"But I still have faith," Hethcoat continued, "that downtown will make it and thrive again."

He believes lighting up windows in the downtown area will draw people to slow down and look and then come back. There's hope for Williston and he knows in time great things will happen.

"I'm so proud of our police and fire departments," he said, "and the airport and how far it has come. We're blessed for the businesses we've been able to get to Williston and the ones that have stayed with us."

He claims he never has looked at his life as one filled with accomplishments.

"You have something to do and you get it done," he said matter-of-factly. You just do the right thing and stick by it."


What now? Some travel visiting family is always on the agenda, he said, and puttering in his yard, Fresh water fishing will also take a top seat.

"I'll take my friends out freshwater fishing," he said, "and in return they'll take me out saltwater fishing.

"Over the years, I've known so many wonderful people and got to experience many wonderful things.

"It's been a good life and coming here was the best move I ever made," he said.