Profile 2020: Meet Sunflower County's Newest SupervisorBy BY RECARDO THOMAS STAFF REPORTER,
After a successful run for office this past November that included a runoff against one of his opponents, Indianola resident Ben Gaston has begun his inaugural term as a Sunflower County Supervisor, filling the District 3 seat vacated by retiring county lawmaker Dennis Holmes.
Although Gaston was not born in Indianola, he has called it home for nearly four decades. Born and raised in Washington County, the Greenville native moved to Indianola in June of 1981. “That’s so long ago, I don’t ever think about it,” he said.
Gaston’s life experiences have been a series of zigs and zags, starting from a seemingly irresolute course of action following high school graduation and continuing up to his current seat on the Sunflower County board.
His extensive resume includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, an MBA, a career as an environmental specialist, director of risk management and the human resource director for a national grocer wholesaler, plus a 42-year career in the military and more. “I had the good fortune to work with a lot of good people over the years,” said Gaston.
The first-term supervisor asserts that he has developed a great many relationships over the past 30 years in business, and the military as well as legislative contacts, both state and federal mainly due to his work with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. “So, I’m very comfortable with those relationships, where I can pick up the phone and call somebody if we need something.”
Gaston said he made the run for the supervisor’s position as a continuing effort to be a part of the community and to help it. He is confident that his association with the county lawmakers will produce positive results for the county, “I should be able to work very well with the current board and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Public safety, education, economic development and controlling the expenses are priorities that he has set for his term in office. “I look forward to getting involved with Fred Washington on economic development. I think Fred has done some good things,” he said.
Gaston said more jobs would be good for the citizens as well as for the county’s tax base. “The population in Indianola is aging and as they age they pay fewer taxes, so we’ve got to make up that deficit by having young people stay here and attracting people to come to this community.”
Gaston stated that what the county needs to propel it forward can only be accomplished through good strong educational and economic development. “I think there’s a lot of potential here in Sunflower County to bring in jobs,” he said.
Public safety is also high on his list of priorities, both in the county and the municipalities. He believes that the recent surge in involvement in Indianola to combat violence will spread throughout the county.
What else will the neophyte lawmaker bring to the table? “I pull from things that I learned in the military as far as planning and execution. Certainly my time at SuperValu as the general manager, managing the P&L because I understand what it’s like to be pressed for revenue so you can do things. So, you really have to manage your budget and I do focus on the budget,” he said.
The 1966 Greenville High graduate admits that he may have had what some would consider a bumpy start early on in life before pulling it all together. He spent only one year at Mississippi State before deciding he wanted to try something else. “My mind wasn’t really on college at that point so I came back to Greenville,” he said.
Gaston worked locally and attended community college in Moorhead. “At the end of two years I was still bored, so I joined the Army, did two years in the Army, then I came back, got married (and) by then my head was on straight,” he said.
His course then led him to Bolívar County where he earned his B.S. degree in chemistry from Delta State. He joined the National Guard while attending DSU. “I did that primarily just to generate some income and I liked it and I stayed in and between the Army and the National Guard I wound up with 42 years of service.”
The now retired major general said after leaving DSU he accepted a job working for the United States Department of Agriculture in Stoneville where he was assigned to raise opium poppies. “That was back in the old Jimmy Carter days,” he said.
The program called for them to raise the poppies and a certain species of weevils, collect the weevils and put them in capsules, then put them in airplanes and fly them to Afghanistan to eradicate the poppies and later use them for other agricultural applications.
However, that didn’t quite go as planned, Gaston said. “The Afghans kept killing the weevils so they wouldn’t eat up the poppies because they made more off heroin than they could cotton,” he said, “What Carter wanted to do was put them back into agricultural products like cotton, soy beans and that sort of things, so the program kinda failed after a few years.”
From there he spent seven years as an environmental chemist for an automotive trim manufacturer in Cleveland and had to travel to their 10 other plants around the country. “I got tired of traveling,” Gaston said. So, thus began his tenure at the Lewis Grocer Company (more recently SuperValu and most recently United Natural Foods Inc.).
Gaston said they had an opening for a risk manager and he applied for the position because of his previous experience dealing with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. After two years in that role, he had the opportunity to transition into the human resources department, where he worked for 14 years.
The one-time chemist was now enveloped into the business world and facing new challenges. Even though his stint in environmental services placed him in managerial positions, that experience was not enough for the course ahead.
“When I was managing other facilities I found out that they didn’t teach you a lot about business in the chemistry field so I also got an MBA from Delta State so I could understand what was going on in business and the MBA has been very helpful over the years,” said Gaston.
SuperValu reorganized in 1995 and that move relocated him to Atlanta as the vice president of personnel for the southeast region. Then, in 2000 he returned to Indianola as the general manager of the local plant where he worked until retirement in 2016.
However, retirement didn’t mean rest. He almost immediately went to work as a lobbyist for MEMA and during his 18 months with the organization he also assisted in setting up the disaster reservist program where they trained 450 volunteers to be disaster reservists. “It’s a way of getting additional help in times of disaster,” he added.
Gaston said those persons serve throughout the state of Mississippi as well as other states, if necessary, at no cost to the counties. “They could work for the local EMAs, MEMA would pay them, we trained them in all aspects of emergency management, we required them to take all of the FEMA courses so they can really be an asset to the local managers,” he said.
When that project was complete Gaston returned to Indianola and opened up the Families First Resource Center and managed it until the state’s Department of Human Services cut off the funding, forcing him to close the local office. “We operated for a year, we did a lot of good things; we had some phenomenal results,” said Gaston.
Gaston praised the opportunity to work with First Families as another way to connect with the community and help those in need.