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Gary Demel retires after 51 years
‘Plenty of things to keep me busy’
Gary Demel is shown in front of his Great Bend home, standing next to a limestone marker he carved. - photo by Susan Thacker
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I’ve been very fortunate; in both of my marriages my best friend was my wife and now my best friend is my wife. We might be married but we’re best friends, too.
Gary Demel

 The question Gary Demel has heard most for the past month is, “What are you going to do when you retire?”

Demel’s last day as Superintendent of the Barton County Road and Bridge Department was Dec. 1. He’d worked for the county for 51 years, with some time off to serve in the U.S. Army.

“I’ve been busier than ever since I retired,” he said. His wife Renee’s father passed away and they’ve been taking care of selling his property in Trousdale, and Gary also takes Renee’s grandchildren to and from school.

Then there’s the Demels’ rural property in the Walnut Creek area. They live in Great Bend but have two houses that he’s fixed up. “That’s our retirement home out there,” he said. “I built a garage out there where I can do a lot of work.

“I also have a small farm up at Milberger, Kansas, that I oversee. I don’t farm it, but I oversee the farming and we have a yard and a shed out there, too.

“So I have plenty of things to keep me busy.”

Family and early career

Demel was born in Barton County and grew up on the family farm near Odin. It was “a big Catholic family,” he said. Gary had two sisters and eight brothers.

His youngest brothers are twins; Kurt works for the Pawnee County Road Department in Larned and Kirby works for a Toyota dealership in Wichita. Brother Maurice lives in Ellinwood and works in corrosion control in Great Bend. Dale works for the City of Boise, Idaho, and his oldest brother, Vernon, lives in Peabody, Kansas. He also lost two brothers, David and Norman.

His sister Carol lives in Littleton, Colorado, and his sister Sharon lives in Hutchinson.

He graduated from Odin High School in 1970 but didn’t turn 18 until October of that year. He’d worked a few summer jobs, had a short-term job in Hoisington and then worked on a farm until he came to work for Barton County in September of 1971. The skills learned in farming, including driving trucks and tractors, fit into the county’s needs.

Drafted in the Vietnam era

The U.S. Army drafted soldiers during the Vietnam War up until Dec. 7, 1972. The year he turned 18, his birthday, Oct. 6, was number six on the draft “lottery.” Rather than face a two-year draft that would possibly send him into battle, he enlisted for three years and had the station of his choosing.

“My mom didn’t want me going to Vietnam and I’m glad I never did,” he said. “I got out in 1974.” After basic training at Fort Knox, he spent 18 months at Fort Riley and in the final year he saw the world while advancing to the rank of sergeant. He was with NATO forces in Turkey, stationed 150 miles from the Russian border and 407 miles from the Iraqi border. “I got to travel,” he said. “I went to Spain and Italy.”

Best of all, although jobs were hard to come by when he returned to Kansas, Demel was assured a spot working for Barton County because of his time in the Army, and those years were credited to his longevity with the county.

“So I went back to work and I slowly moved up. The first day I started with a shovel in my hand, shoveling asphalt. When I came back, I was moved up to the heavy truck driving crew, a bridge crew, from about 1975 to the early ’80s.”

Starting another chapter

Gary married Wanda Boxberger in 1979 and they had three children, Mickey, who lives in Mulvane, Tammy Demel in Salina and Jason in Clearwater. Wanda passed away in 2008 after a battle with cancer.

At some point, he started taking classes at Barton Community College on the GI Bill and earned an Associate Degree in business. “I’ve probably got 130 hours of classes that I’ve taken out there,” he said.

“Then I took some mechanic classes in the early 1980s and I moved into the shop, became a mechanic. Then in 1988, I became the shop foreman.”

As he was picking up additional duties, Barton County inherited two bankrupt cemeteries north of Great Bend, Golden Belt Memorial Park and Hillcrest Memorial Park. Demel was trained to mark graves and handle some of the cemetery maintenance.

“It was somewhat difficult because these were inherited cemeteries. Some of their records weren’t there or they weren’t all done right,” he said. “The two cemeteries are laid out differently,” he added.

The county hadn’t planned to take on the cemeteries so the staff were always finding problems and ways to work around them without incurring large expenses.

 “Most of the time when you’re marking graves you’re also dealing with people that are stressed, because of death, and you get to work with them,” Demel noted. “I have some interesting stories. You talk to a lot of people and visit with a lot of people, but that’s kind of the way I’ve always been.” His “people skills” have always helped him in his career.

“I’ve had guys tell me I couldn’t change,” he said. “I’ve adapted very well, I think. As I went through life with all the things that I’ve faced, basically I was able to survive. One of our salesmen told me when I got my job (as foreman), ‘Be quick to make a decision and slow to change your mind. That’s your job.’ And it served me well.”

Staying in Barton County

Other than his time in the Army, Demel has called Barton County his home.

“It seemed like every time I thought about moving on to something else – the grass maybe looked greener – it wasn’t. I got to watch my kids grow up, and my grandchildren. They’re all spread out but we spend time together.”

 After his wife Wanda died, Gary married Renee McVey in 2011 and now he has two stepdaughters, Cynthia Gore in Pawnee Rock and Melissa Childers in rural Great Bend. “And we’ve got about a dozen grandchildren – older ones and a younger set – and four great-grandkids.” Renee is the IT director at Barton Community College and still has about four years before she also retires, he said.

“I’ve been blessed with two women that could put up with me,” Demel said. “I’ve been very fortunate; in both of my marriages my best friend was my wife and now my best friend is my wife. We might be married but we’re best friends, too.”

Other activities

Demel is an active member of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Great Bend. His wife Wanda was Lutheran and so is Renee, who is the church treasurer.

“We’ve been very busy with our extended families,” he said. When he was married to Wanda and raising a family, they enjoyed going to the lake with jet skis and an RV. “We spent a lot of time at Cheney Lake down by Wichita because our kids were there,” he said.

That’s not where Renee’s interests lie, and he’s fine with that, Gary said. When she retires, they hope to do some traveling together and do things. They haven’t figured out what those things will be, he said.

“My wife and I spend a lot of time with our grandkids and our kids,” he said. “My adage is if you spend time with young people, you’ll feel young.”

He’s noticed that Barton County has hired quite a few young people in the last few years, and he enjoyed being able to share his experience with those that came his way. It’s good to move on, but don’t expect Gary Demel to sit around in his retirement. He’ll tell you, “I’d like to accomplish a few more things in life.”

Community Connections is a regular feature of the Great Bend Tribune. We welcome readers to submit names of individuals who are active in the community that they would like to see featured in a future story. Send suggestions to and explain their “community connections.”