Meet: Jerry Bilton

Jerry Bilton IN Wilmington

This post appears courtesy of New Market Wilm, who features a new blog about Downtown Wilmington each and every Wednesday! View the original post here

Next month, Jerry Bilton will celebrate his 70th birthday and his retirement from a Wilmington career that spans five decades and three business sectors – first in government, then in banking, and ending in nonprofits, as the executive director of the Community Service Building for all of its 20 years.

Bilton was one of the architects of the modern Market Street, part of a movement that turned Market into a place where arts and commerce meet, where nonprofits thrive alongside corporate giants. Here, he tells us some of his story, and he made a few headlines along the way:

“I was born in Fort Worth, Texas. My father was career Air Force. When I was very young, we moved to Belgium. I started grade school in Brussels, speaking more French than English. We came back to Dover for five years and then back to France for three years, so I had two stints in French-speaking areas.”

“I was there in France when the Algerians were blowing up Paris and de Gaulle wanted us out. I was on a train with my family going toward East Germany at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we didn’t know where that was all headed. The images I have in my head from growing up are pretty remarkable, from being able to attend the Boy Scout World Jamboree in Greece to being in East Germany where they’re putting mirrors under trains to make sure nobody was hiding.”

“I grew up seeing all of Western Europe. I loved it. But in ’63, we came home. We lived in North Dakota for a year and when Dad retired, we came back to Delaware. While my contemporaries were growing up in Wilmington, I was growing up on a dirt street in Wyoming, Delaware.”

“My family had no money, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I guess I was in some ways a little isolated. I applied early admissions to the University of Delaware and I got in and went. I did terribly. I was such a new, good, shocking experience. I went from being a very good high school student to a very bad college student. I almost flunked out. But the good news is that each year I did better and better and I graduated on time.

“I got married young. My daughter was at my graduation. I stayed on for another year to do coursework for a masters in economics. I went to Boston University School of Theology for a year, then came back to Delaware to finish up my masters and graduated in ’74, and then we sold everything, bought one-way tickets and went to Europe. My daughter, she actually enrolled in a French school for a little while. But the economic climate in the mid ‘70s was very bad. We stayed for a better part of a year before we decided it was time to come home.”

“We lived with my parents for a year, as I was trying to get established. I put in an application with the state, and wasn’t getting anywhere. When I finally got a call from family court, I interviewed. The position wasn’t one I really wanted, but it was a job. A statistician.”

“I worked right there at 600 Market Street, where Delaware College of Art and Design is now. That was my office, on the top floor. After a time, the chief judge wanted to find a new location. That was my first project.”

“The beauty of my employment history isn’t that I was asked to do what I could do and did – it’s that I was always asked, at critical times, to do things that I’d never done before.”

“The chief judge and I would meet regularly with our team of architects and one day, the chief judge just didn’t show up. And everybody was looking at me for approvals and answers. I was nowhere near ready for this. What I quickly determined was that I needed to be fearless, and I needed to be decisive. And that’s what’s carried me through my whole career – being fearless, and being decisive.”

“I worked for the state for nine years. Right at the end, I helped the youth services department get situated at 824 Market Street. And then I saw a job posting at the Bank of Delaware that listed everything I did. They called it a ‘project manager.’ I applied for it and I got it.”

“My first project there was renovating bathrooms for the executive floor – but the next project was a multi-year project to build 222 Delaware. What I’ve learned with facility management, it’s not always what you know, it’s how you keep people motivated to stay with the work and interested in performing.”

“PNC Bank bought Bank of Delaware, and my work went from being statewide to being regional. I was pretty miserable.”

“The Bosnian war was heating up in 1994. I wanted to quit my work, quit my job, and do some refugee work. I happened to go to a conference for disaster responders in Atlanta and I met the director of emergency response for Church World Service in New York. She was retiring … and I got the job.”

“I could have travelled all over the world, going to disasters, but I didn’t want my time to be wrapped up in that. I wanted to transform the department. We did touch all areas of the world, including Bosnia, which made me very happy. We sent relief supplied to Bosnia that made a difference. That was my dream.”

“Throughout my career, I always volunteered to help nonprofits with facilities. The Christina Cultural Arts Center, I helped them buy and renovate their building. When Kuumba Academy was forming, I was chair of their facilities committee and we bought that building and renovated it. I’ve learned as much from my volunteerism and my connections with the volunteer community as I did from my professional work.”

“When work started on the Community Service Building, David Wakefield at the Longwood Foundation called me in New York and said they’d like me to come down and interview for the project management job, constructing the garage and then the building. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure I would stay on after we’d completed that work. My history and my experience was in creating facilities, not managing them.”

“I guess I felt invested, once I built and renovated the facilities. I could see the challenge, and the challenge was occupying the building. We have 77 tenants now, but we did not have 77 tenants then. I think at the end of the first year, we had 27 tenants. I had seven floors to fill.”

“No one asked me to pay attention to art. It was just natural, right from age 5. My parents took me to museums in Brussels and I was glued.”

“For 12 years, I had a gallery. At first, it was called the eleventh and orange gallery, right there at the garage. I was there for about six years. When I finally leased that space to a hair salon, I was fortunate to be allowed to show art at 919 Market, at what became Gallery 919. I could show 40 paintings in one show. That made the gallery very special and very significant, because it truly was a community gallery. Artists loved it.”

“Market Street is unique in Wilmington. It’s got all this history, up and down Market, history that people don’t realize. The first synagogue in Delaware was on Market. Washington and Lafayette, they walked Market Street. It’s got very deep historical roots. But one of the constants on Market Street is that it is an arts and cultural center. The Grand, the Delaware Historical Society, CCAC, my gallery at one time, The Queen – Market Street is the heart and soul of Wilmington.”