Debi Davidson was 18 years old when she walked into Roseburg City Hall for a interview.
She wasn’t happy with her college prospects, since she was told if she wanted to study to work in an office she’d have to start over with basic math and typing — a step backward from the skills she’d learned at Roseburg High School.
Davidson was a young bride at the time. When Assistant City Recorder Mary Kent Hart, a friend from church, visited with a wedding gift, Davidson mentioned her frustration, along with the fact that she could type 95 words per minute and knew shorthand. Hart suggested the interview. The interview ended with Davidson landing a job as a clerk/typist. It paid $551 per month.
Davidson went on to become one of the city’s most valued employees, moving her way up to management technician in the city manager’s office, and at times serving as acting city recorder. Forty years later, Davidson is retiring this month as the city’s longest serving employee.
“I never thought about going anywhere else,” she said.
In her first years at the city, Davidson typed on an old manual typewriter, despite the fact that others in the office had IBM Selectrics, which at that time were pretty fancy electric typewriters. It wouldn’t be until 1984 that the city got its first computer, and that was shared. Employees had to sign up to spend time on it.
Davidson recalled that when she used the manual typewriter, it would bounce every time she hit carriage return, moving her around each time.
“I went in circles many times,” she said.
Davidson grew up in Roseburg. Her parents owned Ron’s Westside Pharmacy at 920 W. Harvard Ave., where While Away Books is located now. As a kid, she remembers bicycling all around town.
“Back then there was no Roseburg Valley Mall. They were just starting to build Stewart Parkway. I actually kind of miss those days, when downtown was the center. Montgomery Ward was there and JC Penney and Sears Catalog. Everybody knew everybody,” she said.
In her time with the city, Davidson worked with six mayors, 73 city councilors and five city managers. The last of those managers is Lance Colley, who she’d known since she was a toddler. They attended the same church and their parents were friends. Colley was working at the city as an accountant when she started there. He worked his way up to chief financial officer before taking a job with the Roseburg School District. He returned to lead the city government in 2012.
Colley said Davidson will be greatly missed, both by the city staff and the citizens who’ve come to now her over the past 40 years.
“I really can’t imagine City Hall without her. She has been the face of our office as long as most of us can remember,” Colley said.
Colley said he wishes Davidson the best of luck as she takes a “well-deserved retirement after her 40 years of exemplary service to our community.”
Davidson said one of the things she’s proudest of is she wrote the city’s first personnel policy. Up until then there were a lot of unwritten rules, and there wasn’t a human resources manager or program.
She said some of the best advice she ever got was from Hart, who told her that she should pay attention and listen to everything, because it’s what she knew that would make her good at her job. That’s likely why she’s gained a reputation as the person most likely to know the answer to a question about the people, the issues and the history of the city government.
In 1982, she had one of her toughest weeks on the job. She filled in at municipal court when one clerk was on vacation and the other in emergency surgery. Davidson had never been in a courtroom before. At that time, the city ran its own jail, and there were inmates awaiting the paperwork to get released. She waded through Monday morning’s paperwork, and then the judge, Warren Woodruff, dictated his retirement notice for her to type. His doctor had said his heart couldn’t take the work anymore.
The only thing that saved her sanity over the following week was the assistance of a young police officer, Bob Cotterell, who would later become a city councilor.
“From that horrible experience I found a lifelong friend. I thought if I could get through that week, I could probably get through anything,” she said.
That feeling was put to the test in the aftermath of the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting. Already reeling from the tragedy, city workers were inundated with calls, many from outside the state, from people who reviled them for officially welcoming then-President Barack Obama to town. There were racial slurs, and threats of violence. Finally, on the advice of federal law enforcement officials, the city temporarily shut down its phone system.
In her spare time, Davidson played piano for pageants and other local events. She thought of herself as a “pit person” because she was down below, working unseen, rather than up on stage. That’s how she thought of her role at the city, too.
“I just thought, let the department heads be up front and I’ll just do the back work for them in the pit,” she said.
Now that she’s retired, Davidson plans to take care of her 19-month-old granddaughter Katura half days during the week. She’s also planning to take a trip to Ireland this spring with City Recorder Sheila Cox.