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June 12, 2012 | 02:04 PMGENEVA — Sixty-five-year-old Gene Decker, a red-faced man with dark-tinted glasses, said about half the people who know him really like him and the other half "thinks I'm an a------."
This is significant when you consider the outcome of the April 3 race for Geneva town supervisor in which Decker beat incumbent Larry Kulik 465-420.
Let's assume about 465 people love Decker and at least 420 don't. That's a total of 885 people — almost one-fourth of the town's estimated population — who know Decker at least on some level.
So, considering those numbers, how does he feel about being really liked and really hated by that many people?
"I don't care," Decker said. "It doesn't bother me. I'm not somebody that's out there to make friends."
Perhaps that's not the answer one would expect from the same man who bought and built playground equipment for the Lake Como Beach Property Owners Association or purchased fishing rods and reels for the Lake Como Yacht Club's annual Take A Kid Fishing Day.
The easy assumption is that these are the reasons why people really like Decker. But when he visited the Regional News office recently to talk about his life, accomplishments and his future as a town supervisor, he said the things he has done and the money he has spent in the community has caused some envy.
"A lot of people resent the fact that I pay for things and do things and am overtly generous. … The only reason I'm popular is because I buy my way into it, (or) least a lot of people think I do," Decker said. "I don't think I do."
His wealth is the product of an interesting career, one which he began as an accountant for a major company. When he retired, he was that company's vice president.
Then again, Decker's whole life is interesting. It began in West Point, Neb., a small town halfway between Omaha and Sioux City. Decker said he "came from nothing."
"I've had a blessed life," he said. "My service in the Army, I could have been dead in Vietnam. In business, how does an accountant become vice president? An accountant who flunked out of engineering (school)? At least my kids will be well off."
Perhaps another sign of a blessed life is Decker appears to have escaped the cause of death which affected his father and grandfather.
"My father died when I was 6 (of) a cerebral hemorrhage," Decker said. "He was 32 years old. His father passed when he was 36. Same thing, cerebral hemorrhage."
He said he worked part-time jobs during most of his years in elementary and high school, paying his way through the University of Nebraska in Lincoln working as a cook at Russell Stover Candies.
He said he was studying to become an engineer or an architect and "flunked my fifth semester calculus" course. Then, after he flunked it a second time, he went into the service during the Vietnam War.
"I actually volunteered for the draft," Decker said.
He was one of 2,000 who went to boot camp.
"One thousand nine hundred and ninety seven went to Vietnam," Decker said. "Three went to West Point, N.Y. I was one of the three."
He said he drove a general around. Then, in 1968, he went to West Berlin. This was during the Cold War era, the age of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall. East Berlin was under Soviet rule. West Berlin was not.
Decker said his main duty was to take dignitaries on tours of Berlin — both eastern and western sides of the city.
"Berlin was (like Mad Magazine's) 'Spy Vs. Spy,'" he said. "Every once in a while we would get into a confrontation that would last a couple hours."
According to Decker, these confrontations could be anything. For example, the driver of a U.S. military vehicle from West Berlin was pulled over for running a stop sign in East Berlin.
Two or three Soviet military vehicles could pull that U.S. driver over, then they would discuss what laws were broken, whether it was intentional — whether this was part of some kind of espionage operation.
"It was certainly interesting. … There were, frankly, a couple times when it got tense," Decker said.
From accountant to VP
He completed his service in 1969, returned to college under the GI Bill and graduated with a financial degree, specializing in accounting, in 1971.
His first job in the world of finance was as an auditor for Brunswick in Chicago. Then, he worked for MacGregor Sports, once a major sporting goods manufacturer, which had four plants in Georgia.
"I spent, like, six months to a year in each one of those plants," Decker said. He would set up cost-accounting systems "because they had no idea how much their products cost to make," he said.
After about five years in the south, Decker landed a job at Baxter Labs near Deerfield, Ill. He worked on a team in a financial department which ultimately would establish plants in other countries. Decker said his team built plants in Puerto Rico, Ireland and Belgium.
In 1977, he became an accountant with Morton Salt.
"I had four or five jobs in their accounting department," Decker said.
His specialty, he said, was "cost accounting."
"In nice, simple terms, cost accounting is the ability to define what a product costs, both in the process of making it and the materials used (and compare it to) the cost of goods sold," Decker said.
He must have been good. In 1983, Decker became vice president of distribution at Morton. In 1993, he became vice president of production. Then, vice president of operations.
He retired in 2005.
Decker said the two things he is the most proud of during his time at Morton were helping make the company accident- and strike-free.
"Morton was notorious for having strikes before me," he said. "We used to have two a year, (but) as an accountant, I learned pretty quickly both sides die (during a strike). Strikes were usually over a dime an hour, little bitty crap -- a holiday, whether they could take an extra day off … so we never had a strike in my 12 years as vice president of operations."
Decker said they also launched a safety initiative laden with some tasty incentives.
"If plants ever got to a million hours (with no accidents), we would give them a day off," he said. "I would come down, the president would come down, and we would cook everybody a steak and lobster dinner."
As it happened, someone Decker worked with at Morton introduced him to the Lake Como area. He asked Decker if he had a summer home. At the time, Decker didn't, so the co-worker invited him up to his cabin in Lake Como.
Eventually, Decker bought that cabin. He said his family used that cabin until 2004, when they built a new house across the street. After Decker retired, they became full-time Lake Como residents.
"Como's not the greatest lake on earth, especially for cleanliness or depth, but it's quiet," he said. "It's good for fishing, you can waterski on it. There's not much traffic."
But what does Decker like the most about the area?
"I love the fact that Lake Geneva is accessible," he said. "But I can't afford to live on that lake. And I'm pretty well-off."
Perhaps it's Decker's matter-of-fact speaking manner which rubs some the wrong way, but it's what others admire. At any rate, it appears he hasn't used his wealth to wall himself off from the community.
And he may not care what people think of him, but that's not to say he doesn't care about where he lives.
Decker said he first became involved in the Lake Como Beach Property Owners Association in 2007. He is the association's treasurer. He also is co-chair of the association's Lakefront Committee.
"I'm responsible for the lakefront," Decker said. "That's the mowing, that's the cleanup of the beaches."
He spoke enthusiastically about the ongoing memorial project for Tom Vogt, the former area police officer. Decker said some people suggested he sell and plant trees along the Lake Como shore to raise money for association parks. Now, there are 42 trees already planted.
"I have six more to plant this fall and with excess funds … I put three trees at the (Lake Como) Clubhouse and three along Como Road, across from Charlotte Peterson Park," he said. "And one by Korona Park."
Decker also helped build a playground set purchased by the association, which was erected in Clubhouse Park. He said he bought two more — one which went up by the Lake Como beach and one by the war memorial. He also purchased and constructed a swing set at the corner of Beach Road and Lake Shore Drive.
Around 2010, Decker first tried his hand at local politics. That's the year he first ran against Kulik and lost by 30 votes, 290-260. In 2011, Decker lost to Merle Loomer 579-485.
He said he was inspired to run for the Geneva Town Board because he felt someone should represent the Lake Como Beach Property Owners Association. Decker also said people shouldn't take that to mean he doesn't represent anyone else in the town. He said he is looking out for everybody's best interest.
But that may be easier said than done. Being a supervisor isn't what Decker said he expected.
"I've learned that it's a hell of a lot of work," he said. "In six weeks, I've been to nine meetings. There are a lot of meetings to attend, a lot of people to listen to."
So why do it? He said his new role as town supervisor is "just my way of giving back to the community."
"I'd either be on the golf course or I'd be in the bar," Decker said with a smile. "What else is there to do in Como?"