Photographs by Nick Hillemann
Regina Oakley, who said her friends and family call her Gina, said she learned responsibility while growing up working with her sisters, Shelly McCain and Rhonda Warford, in their parents’ grocery store on U.S. 64 near Vilonia. Oakley started working in the Faulkner County Treasurer’s Office just a couple of weeks before she turned 20.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Regina “Gina” Oakley of Vilonia didn’t realize while working in her parents’ grocery store and gas station that the experience was preparing her to be the Faulkner County treasurer.
Oakley, now 55, was 19 when she started working in the treasurer’s office, will retire Dec. 31.
First, though, she’s got to get the 2014 budget done. It’s $34 million, the same as last year’s request.
Her desk was covered with printouts; her adding machine had a stream of paper curling down to the floor.
“It’s got to be done, and it’s got to be done right, … whether I stay here from daylight to dusk,” she said. “It’s budget time, and I take my job very seriously.”
When she was in third grade in the Vilonia School District, her parents, Hestel and Pat York, bought a store on U.S. 64 that they renamed York’s Grocery and Station, now the Eight Mile Store.
Oakley, the middle of three girls, said they worked at the store sweeping, pumping gas, stocking shelves, slicing meat — whatever needed to be done.
“The store opened around 5:30 or 6 in the morning and didn’t close till 7 [p.m.],” she said.
Oakley and her sisters learned to cook while their parents were working, and that’s one of her loves today (her made-from-scratch chocolate cake is in demand at any potluck). When the girls had a cooking question, they called their grandmother, the late Tressie Avra, who was a cafeteria cook in the Vilonia School District for 54 years.
Oakley said she and her family enjoyed rodeoing. Although it’s hard to tell by looking at her manicured nails, perfectly arranged hair and matching jewelry, she went to the National High School Rodeo Association finals twice in goat tying.
She attended Arkansas State University-Beebe after high school and took bookkeeping and accounting classes.
After about a year, Oakley said, she decided to quit school to earn money to buy a car.
She didn’t marry her high school sweetheart, Steve, until she was 25 and he was 26. They’d seen too many classmates’ marriages that didn’t work out, she said.
“We wanted to be sure,” she said.
After leaving ASU-Beebe, Oakley took a job at Torreyson Library at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, where she ordered books and filled in for the secretary when needed.
Oakley still lived at home, which was next door to the store.
“I was walking from the store to the house, and Jerrell Coker pulled in and asked me if I’d be interested in working for him,” Oakley said.
Coker was the Faulkner County treasurer and was friends with her parents.
“He just knew me all my life,” she said.
When Oakley went to tell her boss at the UCA library, he had news for her.
The secretary was leaving the library, and he wanted her to take the job.
“I said, ‘I was just trying to work up the nerve to tell you I was leaving to take another job,’” she said.
Because she’d already told Coker she’d work for him, she left the library.
On July 10, 1978, before her 20th birthday later that month, she started working in the treasurer’s office.
“We had ceiling fans. There wasn’t any air conditioning, and we literally had rocks on our desks that we put on our paperwork so they wouldn’t blow away,” she said, laughing.
Not long after that, the office moved into the current building on the courthouse grounds — with air conditioning.
She was elected treasurer the first time in 2003 and has never had an opponent, with the exception of a 20-something-year-old who dropped out before the election.
“I have loved every bit of it. There are not many people in life who get to have a job they really, dearly love,” she said.
“Some people get up and dread going to work; life’s too short.”
Oakley said she loves numbers.
“You have to love numbers, and we balance to the penny on everything,” she said. “If somebody’s off, it’s just a challenge to me to find it.”
The treasurer’s office “pays every bill for the county,” she said.
“If the sheriff’s office buys supplies, or the road department, or OEM (Office of Emergency Management), all the county offices, we keep up with the expenditures and make sure there’s enough money,” she said.
Also, all the county fees, whether for marriage licenses or whatever, are turned in to the Faulkner County Treasurer’s Office.
The tax collector turns over the money to Oakley’s office, too.
“We post that money and send it to schools, cities, all volunteer fire departments. We send those tax dollars where they need to go,” she said.
The county is changing to another financial-management system, approved by the Arkansas Legislature and required by January 2014. Oakley said she was there for the first one, and she’ll see this one through, too.
“One of the largest changes for me is seeing the growth of the county and dealing with that growth,” she said.
An $11 million justice building, which is under construction, will house courtrooms, judges, the prosecuting attorney’s office and more.
“Anytime there’s construction going on, that’s something I worry about,” she said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a good county treasurer.”
Oakley attends Faulkner County Quorum Court meetings and reports to justices of the peace about the county’s finances.
“This county, unlike some counties, has always been financially stable,” she said. “I think I carry a lot on my shoulders. It’s not really my responsibility. My job is to let the Quorum Court members know about the financial situation.”
A week ago Sunday, she was in the office working on the county budget.
“I guess being raised in the store and Mom and Dad being business owners, you treat the position as your own business, in a sense. It’s not run like a business, but if anything goes wrong, whose shoulders would it fall on?
“But, I could not do my job without all this great staff I have. One person couldn’t do it.”
Having computers obviously helps, although she insists on keeping paper ledgers to see the balances, just in case the power goes out. The office wasn’t computerized when she started.
Oakley recalled that when she first started, she was recruited to go on a trip to Texas to visit a county that had a computerized system.
The Faulkner County judge and a few other people met at Conway’s airport to leave.
Oakley had never flown before.
“We’re getting on this little plane,” she said, and that worried her. “We get into this storm, and we’re shooting all over the sky. I promised myself right then and there I was never doing that again.”
And she has flown only once since, and not in a small plane.
It didn’t go much better.
She flew to New York with a group of Vilonia students, and coming back, they sat on the tarmac in New York for 3 1/2 hours and missed their connecting flight in Chicago.
They got a hotel, and the students flew back “in stages,” she said.
One of the more enjoyable organizations Oakley said she’s been involved with is the Nursing Home Gift Fund of Faulkner County.
It’s not associated with the county offices, but she was the nonprofit group’s treasurer until last month.
“It’s just a blessing,” she said.
Volunteers take gifts and go to all the nursing homes in the county, as well as veterans’ homes in Vilonia and an adult day care.
“That’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed at Christmastime,” she said. “It’s not so much what’s in the bags; it’s coming in and sitting down and visiting with them.”
Oakley said she’s retiring now because she enrolled in a deferred-retirement plan seven years ago.
“My seven years are up this year,” she said. “I do thank the people of Faulkner County for allowing me to serve because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to.”
Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson said her absence will be felt.
“She has such a grasp of the budget and an appreciation for our overriding conservative fiscal policy,” he said.
Dodson said it has been “comforting” to him knowing that Oakley is in the treasurer’s position, “being very cautious with our money and the cushions we have so we don’t get ourselves in trouble. She has taken personal ownership of the job. She’s personally invested, and we were in good hands with her.”
She won’t sit around twiddling her thumbs when she leaves the treasurer’s office.
“We have a cattle farm, and that’s going to keep me busy,” she said. “During hay season, I drive a tractor.”
Whatever needs to be done, whether she stays daylight to dark, Oakley will do it.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.