DERMA • Dock Gabbert, who served as mayor of the town of Derma for more than five decades, has died after a brief battle with COVID-19.
Gabbert’s sister Pam Odom posted on Facebook Wednesday evening that the longtime mayor had “been fighting an insurmountable battle with COVID-19 and Covid Pneumonia.” She said he was removed from the ventilator Dec. 30 and died around 2:30 a.m. the following morning.
Gabbert was Mississippi’s longest-serving mayor. He had won 14 straight mayoral elections, dating back to 1969. Some years he had an opponent. He won one election by just two votes. Most times, he ran unopposed.
In 2014, the Mississippi Municipal League presented Gabbert with a plaque for being the longest tenured mayor in the state. He wore that label as a badge of honor. He loved his town and did not want to give up on it.
In 1967, then 24-year-old Gabbert won a special election to fill out the remaining two years of an alderman’s term on the board. It was his first taste of city government and small-town politics, but it was far from his last.
Back then, the town had gravel streets, 2-inch water lines and no sewer system. The city owned just one building, with a wood desk and a two-drawer filing cabinet.
“I was a young kid and made a remark that there was grant money out there and we should have a sewer system,” Gabbert said in a 2015 interview with the Daily Journal. “Somebody told me I ought to run for mayor. So I did.”
In 1969, the part-time mayor’s position only paid $10 per month. So Gabbert dipped into his own wallet to put paneling in the city building. He also had a phone installed in his name.
Gabbert successfully lobbied for grants to get the sanitary sewer system installed. But the bureaucratic process took several years.
“When we finally let the contract, my first term was about to end (1972), so I decided to run again so I could finish the project,” Gabbert said. “Once the sewer was completed, I thought we might as well get a new water system and get a water tank.”
As work on that project got underway, Gabbert’s second term was nearing its end. So he ran again. And again. And again.
In the last 100 years, Derma has had 11 mayors. Four had terms of one year or less. Two served for 17 or more years. Only Gabbert has served more than 20. The summer of 2021 would have seen the end of his 52nd year as mayor.
Being mayor for more than a half-century gave city projects continuity. It allowed Gabbert to find grants when available to continue to improve the town.
“The thing I am most proud of is the infrastructure,” Gabbert said. “We have real good streets. We’ve got sewer and water. It’s a good place to live.”
Gabbert talked about retiring in 2017, but when he was unable to convince anyone else to run, he threw his hat in the ring again. He had no opposition.
Qualifying for municipal elections begins Monday in Mississippi. Anyone wanting to succeed Gabbert will have until Feb. 5 to qualify at town hall.