The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Community

February 23, 2014

Courtesy was key

Michael Deforest retiring after 35 years with county

SHARON — With a quiet,  unassuming manner, Michael “Mickey” Deforest, has spent more than 35 years of his career working for the county, mending bridges, hosting elections, mapping properties and answering tax questions.

His key to success? Courtesy.

“The credit for that goes to my parents. I’ve found that of all the tools I’ve ever had, that was by far the greatest,” said the 61-year-old, who will retire on his birthday, as the county’s director of the tax assessment office. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that by listening and letting people explain things to you, then you can probably come to a reasonable solution,” he said.

By his own admission, he wasn’t a particularly good student at Sharon High School, but mostly because he didn’t try, he said. He would later excel at courses he needed to succeed in the county’s tax office, he said.

“And so fortunate for me, my mother was a mathematics teacher. So I guess some of what she drilled into me stayed,” he said.

As a young man, Deforest was more interested in the automobile business owned by his grandfather and father, Deforest Buick-Cadillac in Sharon, once located in what is now the parking lot in Sharon City Centre. He started working there at “a very young age” doing everything from sweeping floors to sales.

Shortly after graduation, Deforest tried his hand at opening his own business. He moved to Mercer and opened a shop reconditioning automobiles. “But unfortunately, that was not a success,” he said.

That failure launched him into a lifelong career with the county, laboring for three decades that he said “have just zipped by.”

He started in the maintenance department in 1978 when he was in his mid-20s, he said, doing bridge repair. “At that time, we worked on the old wooden bridges, fixing them,” he said. A slight man, with a thin build, he said it didn’t take him long to discover that construction work was not his forte.

He moved to a position in the recorder’s office for about six months, making copies of records from microfilm, before moving to a more detailed,  painstaking job of becoming a mapper.

“For a number of years I plotted all the properties as described in the deeds. The assessment office has to keep copies of some type of mapping and we have a very, very good system in Mercer County,” he said.

But while he likes detail work, toiling away in bureaucracy doesn’t suit Deforest, he said. “I can’t stand bureaucracy. I know it has to exist, that order has to be kept but I don’t have the patience for it,” he said.

So in 1988, he won a bid for the position of director of elections. He’s had a lifelong interest in politics, he said, and that position, while he enjoyed it, also taught him some lessons about decision making and put him squarely in the media spotlight, a place he said he would rather avoid.

“It was a presidental election that year and we were looking at voter turnout of about 81 percent, instead of the usual 25 or 30 percent. We were still using paper ballots. I had been working steady for about 20 hours. It was 2 a.m. and there were five precincts that hadn’t reported back to us yet. Everyone was exhausted. So I said ‘we’re going to turn off the lights and close up the courthouse and go home.’

“Well, that was the wrong thing to say,” Deforest said. “My boss was on the phone by 6 a.m. and wanted to see me. I was in all the papers. Looking back, I think I might have made a different decision,” he said.

He’s also had a couple failed bids for public office, he said. “I ran for tax collector in Shenango Township and I didn’t win. And I ran for the job in the recorder’s office and that too was unsuccessful. But oh well, it wasn’t meant to be,” he said.

In his current position, Deforest enjoys the ability to interact with county residents and their questions. “I’ve found that you can learn a great deal about people and their ability to discuss a difference of opinion,” he said.

He jokes that his favorite people to deal with are “the silent majority.”

“They seem to have an understanding that taxes are necessary and you don’t hear from them,” he laughed.

He eschews computers and does very little beyond the absolute necessities on them. “I can operate the programs on here that I need to, but that’s it.”

And that lack of interest in technology is exactly why Deforest said he feels it’s time to move on. “Maybe the next guy will be absolutely brilliant and come up with a much better way of doing things. I know it’s time for me to move on. I’ve aged. I’ve lost patience. Now it’s time to get out of the way,” he said.

He said he won’t be surfing the Internet or chatting on Facebook during his retirement, preferring instead to be outdoors, either fishing or gardening.

“I love gardening. Absolutely love it. I have a huge garden and I’m getting ready for that,” the Sharon man said. He has a love of Great Danes and has owned several, but now, doesn’t have a pet.

“I love big dogs. But the trouble with big dogs is that they don’t live that long. I don’t want to go through that heartbreak again,” he said.

His parents, Doris and William Deforest are still in good health, he said, and he will spend time with them.  And he laughs as he says not only he but all three siblings have careers rooted in mathematics.

His sister Janet is a systems analyst; another sister, Candace, is a vice president at a bank; and his brother David is a broker with an investment company.

Travel, while he enjoys it on a limited basis, isn’t much in the cards either, he said. “I don’t have any great desire to travel to foreign lands or anything like that,” he said.

He enjoys traveling to  New England for skiing, but isn’t making any immediate plans.

“I may get bored. I don’t know. I’ve asked people who retired and they say they don’t know how they found time to work. I guess we’ll see if that’s true,” he said.

And his wish on his last day is to leave quietly, without any fanfare. “I really hate being the center of attention,” he said.

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