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After 28 years, Bockman reflects on how DeKalb County has changed

Ray Bockman retired Nov. 30 from his county administrator position after more than 30 years with the county.
Ray Bockman retired Nov. 30 from his county administrator position after more than 30 years with the county.

DeKALB – When Ray Bockman sat at his desk for the first time as DeKalb County administrator, there was not a single computer in sight.

Twenty-eight years later, the recently retired administrator had just helped the County Board approve a major upgrade to the fiber-optic network to help businesses and Northern Illinois University realize technological efficiencies.

The switch from mail to email was just one of many changes Bockman experienced during his 32 years with the county – 28 of which were spent in the top spot of administrator. He retired Nov. 30.

“This was a very different place when I started here,” Bockman said. “One of the earliest things I remember is the grand debate whether the county should get a mainframe or PCs ... it’s amazing to me.”

Since July 1984 when Bockman was named administrator, he has seen major economic and industrial growth in a county that was almost exclusively agricultural and had residents flocking to Rockford and Chicago on weekends to meet shopping needs.

There was also a major expansion of services during that time under Bockman’s guidance that included more health and mental health services, a recent expansion of the county courthouse and the conversion of the DeKalb County Rehab & Nursing Center, which Bockman considers his crowning achievement.

The center remains one of the state’s only self-sufficient county retirement homes and continues to provide high-quality service despite operating on “razor thin margins,” Bockman said. He recalled board members and staff meetings until well past midnight during some sessions to make their dream a reality.

“It worked out beyond our wildest expectations,” he said of the decadelong effort. “We saved a very worthwhile enterprise.”

But some issues were too complex for Bockman to complete. In 1990, assessors suggested the county expand its jail to relieve overcrowding. Twenty-two years later no expansion has taken place, and the county is spending more than $1 million a year to transport inmates to other county jails.

DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott, who worked with Bockman for 28 years, said without Bockman’s leadership and vision the county would not have a $27 million facility plan ready to go as it does now.

After four failed referendums, Scott said there was not much anyone could do to expedite the jail expansion.

“His biggest influence came from his critical thinking and how he looked into projects and budgets with a long-term vision,” Scott said. “I believe he certainly made me a better sheriff.”

After three decades of solving county problems, Bockman is handing the torch to his friend and colleague of 29 years: Gary Hanson. Bockman said issues such as the jail expansion, nursing home funding and struggling economy will challenge Hanson, but his familiarity with the issues and department heads make him the best person for the job.

Hanson, who served as deputy administrator, said Bockman had a big role in preparing him for the position.

“I feel the transition will be real smooth,” Hanson said. “Certainly there will be some differences because we are different people that worked very well together.”

While decades in government have jaded some, Bockman said he leaves feeling accomplished and optimistic about the democratic process. He even said his experience changed him for the better as he once believed individuals made better decisions than groups – a philosophy to which he no longer subscribes.

And after looking across the country for a retirement destination, Bockman decided to settle in the community he helped build.

“We looked all over the country, and we decided we’re going to stay right here,” Bockman said. “If it gets too cold, we can always leave.”

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