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Kanawha assessor prepares to say goodbye to her post

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For over almost three decades, Phyllis Gatson has gotten out of bed every morning to prepare for her workday at the Kanawha County Courthouse.

That routine will change come New Year's Day.

Gatson is retiring from public service at the start of 2013. She has served as Kanawha County Assessor since 1995.

The longtime public servant also served as Kanawha County Magistrate from 1976 until she was appointed to her first term as assessor.

When asked what she was going to do after her retirement, Phyllis answered, "I'm not sure."

The 84-year-old is thinking about finding a part-time job, she said.

Incoming assessor Sallie Robinson and Cathy Gatson, the Kanawha County Circuit Court Clerk and Phyllis' daughter, said they would be able to keep her busy.

"I'm always going to need her advice," Robinson said. "She's going to be on my hotline."

"She'll always be able to come over to my office and volunteer," Cathy said with a smile.

Phyllis will miss working with people the most once she retires, she said. She has become accustomed to talking to folks in the office and hearing about their lives, she said.

"I don't like to go home," Phyllis said. "I always have people around me here at the office to talk to."

Phyllis won't just miss the people in the office and the courthouse, Cathy and Robinson said. She will also be missed terribly by those who have worked with her.

"I'm used to being able to look out my office window and seeing the light on in her office," Cathy said.

Cathy works in the Kanawha County Judicial Annex across Virginia Street from the old courthouse where Phyllis' office is located.

"It's been a special privilege to work beside my mom," Cathy said. "She's been a great role model for me and everyone else in the courthouse."

Cathy has worked in the circuit clerk's office since 1987. 

A retirement reception was held for Phyllis on Dec. 11 in the courthouse. During the festivities, a plaque was dedicated in her honor inside the judicial annex.

Courtroom 1, which sits inside the judicial annex near the corner of Virginia and Court streets, was also named for Phyllis.

Phyllis started her public service as a magistrate. She was one of the first class of magistrates elected in Kanawha County after state voters passed the West Virginia Judicial Reorganization amendment.

The amendment reorganized the judicial system in the Mountain State, eliminating the local justices of the peace and creating the magistrate positions. The reorganization gave the West Virginia Supreme Court more oversight of the state's judicial system, Phyllis said.

"Before that, justices of the peace were on their own," she said. "They could pretty much do what they wanted to do."  

Working as a magistrate was Phyllis' favorite job, she said. However, she never enjoyed putting people in jail.

"I always thought about their families," Phyllis said. "But sometimes you just have to send someone to jail."

Phyllis once had to put a man in jail, but then turned around and bought milk and food for his family, Robinson said.

"That guy told me that once when I saw him on the street," Robinson said.

Phyllis was president of the West Virginia Magistrates Association from 1983 until 1987. She also served as chief magistrate for 11 years.   

Phyllis worked as a magistrate from 1976 until being appointed to serve as assessor in May 1995. She was appointed to serve out the remainder of Kemp Melton's term after he was elected as mayor of Charleston.

Phyllis was elected in her own right in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. The state Tax Department named her West Virginia Assessor of the Year in 2007.

Phyllis became interested in politics at a young age. She was encouraged to serve in public office by her late husband Charlie Gatson and her uncle Poly Burford, Cathy said.

Charlie Gatson made an unsuccessful attempt at a state Senate seat in the 1960s and Burford was also involved in state and local politics, Cathy said.

"She (Phyllis) attended the Democratic meetings and she caught the bug," she added.

 Phyllis sought a position in the West Virginia House of Delegates, but was unsuccessful, Cathy said. She was also employed as a chief accountant for the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Commission.

In 1971, Phyllis helped to organize the Kanawha County chapter of the Federation of Democrat Women. She was also the first club president and has remained an active member for the past 29 years.

In 1974, Phyllis made an unsuccessful bid for the Kanawha County Circuit Clerk position.

Phyllis was born and raised in Big Chimney, in the northern part of the county, where she still resides.

She has two children, Charles Gatson II and Cathy.

Charles Gatson II is currently a radiologic technologist at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She has three grandchildren in Florida and one great-grandson. 

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.


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