For more than three decades, Dede Hiltner has served the city of Margate proudly. After working under three mayors and spending more than 9,000 days behind the desk at City Hall, the 63-year-old has decided that today is all about Dede.
"I'm the gal behind the scenes," the energetic woman said between laughs. Her retirement became official Oct. 1.
At a recent lunch date at the Tilton Inn, Hiltner arrived early, wearing a black Margate City-embroidered shirt. The restaurant was a short distance from the home she shares with her husband, Isaiah Stephens, in Egg Harbor Township. The two have had a township address for about 25 years.
But for Hiltner - born and raised in Margate - "it's only 10 minutes," she said of the commute.
The Holy Spirit High School graduate began her career in Margate on May 3, 1976, after leaving the Pleasantville school system. She was pursuing teaching at the time, after receiving a degree in education and English from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University).
Hiltner recalls receiving a personal call from Bill Ross, Margate's longest-standing mayor, demanding that she come in and work for him. "You know everyone in town!" Hiltner said, mimicking the much-loved official. "He was relentless."
Although hesitant to leave her teaching career behind, Hiltner began her 25-year stint as secretary to the mayor. And the former beach tagger's passion for the shore town only grew from there.
"That man was so in tune, so I had to be in tune," she said.
Hiltner worked as Ross' troubleshooter, making sure issues concerning residents were addressed and nobody went unrecognized. At the mayor's request, Hiltner would research obituaries, birthdays, anniversaries, birth announcements and more. "He would call me 10 times a day!" she said. "He trusted me 100 percent."
She also worked part time as Planning Board specialist for the city, handling matters involving building and zoning. Beginning in 1980, she also began working as the secretary of the Atlantic County Mayors Association. She said handling the tasks was challenging, but rewarding. "I just loved it," she said.
When Ross retired in 2003, Hiltner was worried. Vaughn Reale would be the town's new mayor, and she figured her position as secretary would be filled by someone else.
"I need to draw from your wealth of knowledge and everything you know about this city," she remembered Reale telling her. Hiltner continued in the position until she was relocated, under current Mayor Michael Becker, to revenue and finance, where she worked as a clerk under current CFO Lisa McLaughlin and Commissioner of Revenue and Finance Maury Blumberg.
"Dede has dedicated her entire life to the city of Margate. Any problem? Dede would be the first to raise her hand to help. … We are going to miss that," Blumberg said.
Hiltner was scheduled to work until the end of September, but her last days were in early August due to illness: Hiltner found out she had ovarian cancer, just days after deciding to retire. Although it may not be an ideal way to begin retirement, Hiltner has no plans to remain anything but positive. "I'm not dwelling on it."
Her plans include getting healthy, but she know she will have more on her plate than doctor's appointments.
"She's not a golfer or a fisherman. She probably won't be partaking in a hobby … she's not a traveler," said the youngest of her five brothers, Tom Hiltner, 51, who has worked for the city since 1986. He currently serves as a city clerk and tax collector.
"She can continue sharing and passing along her experience. Her job takes a certain skill set. It's unique," he said.
Tom is planning a retirement party for Oct. 19 at one of his sister's favorite restaurants, Sofia, on Amherst Avenue in Margate.
While her days of clocking in at City Hall are over, she expects her visits not to decrease. From trips to Casels to nail appointments, Hiltner won't go anywhere else: "It's the small town atmosphere with a community that has such camaraderie. That town is so special."
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