DeeDee Gillis' career has taken her from crawling around under houses to hobnobbing with European dignitaries. Along the way, she has interacted with people from all walks of life and collaborated with City employees in every department. She will retire June 1.
The Gastonia native says she owes her wide-ranging career to good mentors and talented leaders. “The City has been good to me,” Gillis says. “The people they put in my life have changed me forever – in a good way.”
She started as a County zoning and erosion control inspector in the early 1990s and came to the City at the request of then-City Manager Danny Crew in 1994. She got her plumbing, mechanical, electrical and building certifications and worked her way up to senior housing inspector.
An internal reorganization put Gillis into a new department called Community Improvement. The department was led by a female and all of the division heads were women, which was not typical in the 1990s. “He was a diversity visionary before his time,” Gillis says of Dr. Crew, the city manager who created the new department led by women. “There were no glass ceilings with him.” The City of Gastonia has continued to provide opportunities for females, with former City employee Jennie Stultz serving as mayor from 1999 to 2011, and more than a dozen women currently in management roles.
The new Community Improvement Department was led by Susan Hinely. Gillis was the Code Enforcement administrator. Gillis describes Hinely as a remarkable mentor and leader. She says Hinely believed in her employees, giving them wider responsibilities and empowering them to be successful. “You empower people by delegating to them,” Gillis says. “It says ‘I trust you. I know you can do this.’ Being empowered is everything.”
Hinely kept delegating and Gillis says she eagerly accepted new challenges. “I didn’t care if it was in my job description,” she says. “I would go to people and say, ‘I’ve been given this to do. Can you help me?’” That’s how she learned to apply for a state grant and build Smyre Park. How to be part of the team that built Gateway Village, from picking out the countertops to helping the first resident move in. How to develop budgets, assist with Downtown beautification, be in charge of the Sister Cities program and lead a delegation to Gotha, Germany, and much more.
Since 2012, Gillis has managed the Solid Waste Division, now part of Public Works. She has overseen a shift to automated trucks, route optimization and using iPads to increase efficiency, among many other improvements.
“I couldn’t have been a success if it wasn’t for people taking me under their wing, teaching me things, showing me where I was going wrong, helping me when I was right,” she says of her career. “There are a hundred names of people who worked for the City and mentored me.”
Gillis has been paying it forward, mentoring others throughout her career. When asked what she’s most proud of, Gillis pauses. “I’m most proud of being the City’s go-to person,” she says. “I have not been the ‘no’ person. I have always tried to find an answer, a way, a path to do the impossible. Rather than saying ‘no’ just because it is easy.”
Known for being ambitious and energetic, Gillis wants to remain active when she retires. She’s looking forward to riding motorcycles with her husband, camping, gardening, traveling, and spending time with her grandchildren.