Music is constantly playing in the offices of Gable Music Ventures as co-founder Gayle Dillman and her colleagues listen to hours of submissions from various artists. When that “wow moment” of hearing an incredible artist for the first time happens, Dillman says, “I feel like I am really fortunate to have the job I have.”
Discovering fresh sounds, scoping out venues and staying out all night with musicians qualifies as a typical day at Gable. But with nearly 40 percent of Delawareans working in fields like education, health, retail and finance, according to the Delaware Department of Labor, it’s certainly not representative of the work most of us do.
We tracked down 10 Delawareans who are following their passions and pursuing unexpected careers. For some, the job is the culmination of decades of hard work and education. For others, like Dillman, the job is the result of reinvention and taking the road less traveled.
“It’s important to share stories about how people get to where they’re going and encourage people who are on one path to consider taking another path, especially when they have a passion for it,” says Dillman, who is sometimes surprised to find herself working full-time in the music industry.
The jobs are not always easy, sometimes messy and often require a heaping dose of stick-to-itiveness. But they are still pretty cool. Read on and you may find yourself reconsidering your typical 9-to-5.
Name: Lisa Black
Company: Garnet Girl, Newark
Years in the business: 12
Job perk: “Adventure. Think about all of the amazing places that I’ve been—Estonia, Finland, Germany, Norway. I got to see the northern lights.”
Tool she can’t live without: Her phone.
Lisa Black describes the role of film producer as “ringleader meets head chef. You set the strategy, but then you allow people to take the ingredients,” she says.
She spent much of career in marketing for major corporations. However, after being in the entertainment industry as a producer for close to 30 years on the side, family and friends encouraged Black, 52, to make it her full-time occupation. When she turned 40, she was ready for a life change.
In the years since she established her production company—Garnet Girl, named for her January birthstone—she’s dealt with both hard times and success. She’s traveling about 200 days out of the year, and when she’s not she works out of her home.
“I think they think it’s all glamourous and it just happens with a pixie wand and fairy dust, and it doesn’t,” Black says. “There’s a lot of sacrifice.” Her latest film, The Birdcatcher, about a young woman in Norway who hides from the Nazis while working on an occupied farm, premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Jan. 25, 2019. The second festival to host it was the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Society’s Jewish Film Festival March 16 and 17, 2019.
“There’s nothing like it, to have something shown in the state where you reside, where you raised your children,” Black says. “It’s pretty special.”
Name: Joseph Gordon
Company: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wilmington
Years in the business: 18
Perk: “The ability to travel. The FBI is certainly a nationwide organization, but it’s also a worldwide organization.”
Tool he can’t live without: “It sounds corny, but No. 1 is a sharp mind.”
Approaching 30, Joseph Gordon was working as a paramedic and preparing for law school. Then, a longtime friend began to recruit him for his office: The Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“I actually put the law school application on hold to find out whether or not I would get into the FBI,” says Gordon, 49, who has served in the U.S. Navy. “So I was accepted into law school but waited for the FBI to make their decision.”
Gordon, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, has worked in the FBI’s Wilmington office since 2011. It often surprises people to discover the FBI has a steady presence in Delaware and that agents don’t parachute in for major cases. Working hand-in-hand with local law enforcement, agents stationed in Delaware pursue cases day in and day out, Gordon says.
Gordon’s current focus is on public corruption and financial crimes, but he admits he never knows what any day will bring. He recalls starting one day with an interview for a financial crime case, only to be pulled into the field when prominent Delaware residents were targeted as part of a national scare involving mailed pipe bombs. He also points to the groundbreaking fraud case at Wilmington Trust as an example of how FBI agents make a difference in Delaware.
“That’s what the FBI does,” Gordon says. “It takes very complex, very intricate financial crime cases, and unravels them.”
Name: Marissa Cordell
Company: easySpeak Spirits, Milford
Years in the business: 2
Job perk: That she makes liquor for a living.
Tool she can’t live without: Her computer and a reusable straw.
Marissa Cordell met Zack King, her significant other-turned-business partner, in a bar. A fun day for them would be touring a distillery and then coming home to their dogs, Bella, Ginny and Whiskey. So, they turned that passion into a business.
“We like drinking, so we were like, ‘Hey, instead of paying other bars to drink, why don’t we do it and get paid to do it?’” Cordell, 25, says, laughing.
Of course, owning easySpeak Spirits, which also has a restaurant with an industrial vibe and nods to the Prohibition era, is anything but a night out. Cordell often works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and in addition to managing employees and serving customers, she must manage large shipments and also make sure her operation abides by liquor laws.
“I think a lot of people think it’s all fun,” Cordell says. “They don’t think of it as actual work, but I put in so many hours.”
easySpeak makes vodka, rum, gin and bourbon, as well as seasonal products, with local ingredients and spices. The vodka is distilled seven times, providing clients a smoother product, Cordell says. Specialty batches, like their strawberry vodka, are made with real fruit.
Patrons are often more experienced drinkers. “They’re not looking for $2 beer,” Cordell says. “They understand they’re coming here for the atmosphere and the experience.”
Name: Roderick Hidalgo
Company: RH Gallery & Studios, Hockessin
Years in the business: 2
Perk: “Through so many studio visits, while I’m curating a show, I’ll get to go see [artists’] workspaces and how they think … how they work … and that has really touched my own process in a lot of different ways.”
Tools he can’t live without: A tape measure, pencil and phone
Hidalgo didn’t expect to own a gallery at the age of 31.
Just a few years into his art career, he had outgrown his basement studio and began looking for a new place to create. A family friend connected him with an available 2,000-square-foot spot on Old Lancaster Pike in Hockessin, but it was more space than he needed. Drawing on his experience creating pop-up gallery shows in Wilmington, Hidalgo divided it into multiple studios and a gallery.
Hidalgo grew up in the area and knew the history of the Wyeths, Schoonover and Pyle. Yet he yearned for a more contemporary art scene, and RH Gallery has helped create that. Hidalgo has seen both his work and that of other artists in his gallery thrive since its opening. A gallery in the Hamptons representing Hidalgo took his pieces to the SCOPE Miami Beach Art Fair. Back at home, he’s curated shows for the Delaware Contemporary, Delaware Art Museum and Biggs Art Museum.
A bookmaker, toymaker and photographer have appeared in the gallery, and the space has also hosted art classes. By showcasing a diverse array of artists, Hidalgo thinks yet-to-be inspired artists may find their medium. Hidalgo’s art teacher at Alexis I. duPont High School, Bob Boyce, helped him see art as a possible career. He hopes he’s doing the same.
“Everybody has something that they’re good at creatively,” he says. “You have to figure it out, and be forgiving and patient with yourself, too, in order to find that thing.”
Name: Gayle Dillman
Company: Gable Music Ventures, Wilmington
Years in the business: 8
Job perk: “I think one of the coolest pieces of my job is the possibility of being surprised any day, every day, by someone’s creativity.”
Tools she can’t live without: Business cards and earbuds.
Gayle Dillman believes in second acts. First acts, third acts and fourth acts are important, too. In fact, she needs dozens of acts and stages for The Ladybug Festival, an annual multiday celebration of women in music that she launched with her business partner, local musician Jeremy Hebbel, in Wilmington in 2012.
Dillman, who describes herself as “old enough to not care how old anybody is,” says she came into music promotion by happenstance. A stay-at-home mom of a teenage musician, she saw the need for a venue where young people could perform. Alongside Hebbel, Dillman established Gable Music Ventures, which, in addition to organizing Ladybug, connects venues and other festivals with musicians.
Her background in banking and business strategy might not seem like the résumé of a music promoter. But it works, especially since she prioritizes giving everyone a “fair shake.”
“If somebody reaches out to me and says, ‘I want to come in and play,’ we do take the time to listen to them,” Dillman says.
Although music is often playing in her office, Dillman says her life is not nearly as rock ’n’ roll as people might imagine, especially considering the unglamorous aspects of running a business. “People think all I do is go out and listen to music, and the truth is I spend most of my day in front of my laptop,” she says.
Music promotion, she says, takes a thick skin and strong spine. But the magic of hearing a new artist for the first time makes her second act worth a rousing ovation.
Name: John P. McCarthy
Company: Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Dover
Years in the business: 40-plus
Perk: “When I have an opportunity to find something that no one has seen or touched in hundreds, or even thousands, of years, that is seriously a rush.”
Tools he can’t live without: A 4.5-inch pointing trowel and the Munsell Soil Book of Color, which offers archaeologists standardized terminology for describing soils.
The cliffs of Mesa Verde. The ruins of ancient Troy. Had he not been “seduced by the thrill of discovery” while reading adventure stories as a child, McCarthy, 63, might have gone into economics. The opportunity to study archaeology as a high school student unearthed his true passion. Meeting with the late Ron Thomas, Delaware’s first state archaeologist, while working on a field project connected him with an early mentor.
In his role as state archaeologist for the past five years, the Dover-based McCarthy travels throughout Delaware to supervise and conduct digs, as well as assist government agencies involved in construction. He encourages others to pursue the thrill of discovery, too. Volunteers have found and washed artifacts with him at the site of the 18th-century Bell House Tavern in Dover as part of the state’s Time Travelers program.
But it’s not always a fun adventure for McCarthy, thanks to chigger bites, poison ivy and humid mid-Atlantic summers. Although sites might have been waiting centuries to be discovered, McCarthy is often tied to a schedule because of weather and research deadlines. It’s deliberate and tedious work.
From unearthing pieces of porcelain teacups to discovering a 10,000-year-old spearpoint, McCarthy builds the stories of Delaware’s past inhabitants. “For me, it’s the story of the people behind the things,” McCarthy says. “The whole point of this is to learn about the people and how they lived their lives.”
Name: Kelly Racz
Company: Kelly’s Outdoors, Millsboro
Years in the business: 36
Job perk: “I love the interaction with the customers. The one thing about owning a shop like [mine] is that you’re dealing with people and their hobbies and recreation, so for the most part, they’re very jovial when they come in.”
Tool he can’t live without: An Allen wrench
Whenever Kelly Racz gets a break from running his small business, he goes hunting. He enjoys the solitude of sitting in a tree stand or a box blind.
However, business is booming—since opening Kelly’s Outdoors in Millsboro in 2015, he’s expanded from 800 to 5,000 square feet—so Racz is often busy helping other people hunt. Or fish. Or crab. Or a host of other activities.
He comes from a family of outdoor enthusiasts; his family previously owned the Mispillion Lighthouse Marina in Slaughter Beach and R&R Sports Center in Lewes. Kelly’s Outdoors’ specialty is archery, and Racz and his employees may spend more than an hour fitting a customer with a bow, which can be personalized down to one-eighth of an inch.
Although he didn’t hunt until he was a teenager, Racz started with a bow at age 6, thanks to his dad’s enthusiasm for the sport. Part of Racz’ current business is inspiring the next generation of bow slingers, and he believes it is a sport for anyone.
“I’ve been right here in the local area since 1984 doing this,” Racz says. “And we’re now into the second and third generation of guys that say, ‘Hey I need my bow fixed, where do I go?’ ‘Go see Kelly.’”
Name: DJ Shorty T
Company: Kiss 101.7 Online, Wilmington
Years in the business: 30-plus
Job perk: “I get to do what I love. I’ve always loved music, and to make a career out of it and actually live off of it, that’s what’s amazing.”
Tools he can’t live without: Computer and audio mixer. “You can drop the turntables. You can still deejay with the computer and just a mixer.”
T.J. Wilson, 48, is a regular guy. But when he steps onstage or into the studio, he’s DJ Shorty T.
That’s how Wilson, who likes to focus on the music and not himself, describes being in the entertainment industry. Thanks to his dad, he grew up listening to all genres of music—from Elvis and The Beatles to Chubby Checker and Diana Ross. Coming of age in the ’80s, he easily found his passion for DJing, and calls himself a turntablist because he uses the turntable as an instrument.
It took lots of practice, investment in equipment—and the perfect name.
“You [weren’t anything] unless you were a grandmaster or something like that, so I tried it—Grandmaster T, Mixmaster T—and it just didn’t ring well with me. Then I was like, you know what? Everybody calls me Shorty. I’m a short guy, and my name is T.J.,” Wilson says. “You might as well just call me Shorty T.”
Over the years, he’s worked for various radio stations, DJed at private events and clubs and competed on the national level. An amputee above the knee after a motorcycle accident in his 20s, Wilson calls himself “a no-excuse type of dude,” which has helped him weather changes in a demanding industry.
He’s now with Kiss 101.7, an online radio station and one of the only local stations to cater to hip-hop listeners. Four days a week, he logs on from his private studio in North Wilmington for his 1 p.m. show.
“Because I play real hip-hop and good music,” says Wilson. “And you’re not going to hear it the way I play it anywhere else. You have to come hear Shorty T play.”
Name: Jim White
Company: Delaware Nature Society, Hockessin
Years in the Business: 36
Perk: “I can spend a fair amount of time outside. Like everybody else, I am behind the computer a lot, but the vast majority of the time I get to be outside managing the land.”
Tool he can’t live without: Binoculars. “They’re with me all the time, and people laugh at me because I take them to the most unusual places.”
Jim White grew up an urbanite in downtown Wilmington. “We didn’t even have a tree on our block,” he recalls. “But I always had this love for the outdoors. I don’t know where it came from. I still say it came from watching Jacques Cousteau on TV.”
A proud Delawarean, White, 66, has made being outside his career. Officially the senior fellow for land and biodiversity management at the Delaware Nature Society, and trained as an etymologist, White’s role requires him to operate as a biologist. “I literally manage the biodiversity on all of our lands, and that’s all the plants and animals” for about 2,000 acres across Hockessin and Greenville and other areas of the state, he says. “So kind of like a wildlife manager, except that I manage plants too.” Trail maintenance and habitat restoration are all in a day’s work.
It can be hard to manage what you don’t know, so White is an avid outdoorsman. His favorite tree is the black gum and favorite animal the barking treefrog. He says it’s not unusual for locals to contact him and ask for advice identifying a critter or plant. Working with the public is a highlight and he encourages everyone to take note of their surroundings.
“I think there’s so much to offer in the outdoors,” White says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I like to say every time I go out into the field, I see something new.”
Name: Michele Xiques
Company: First State Dance Academy, Milford
Years in the business: 20
Job perk: “Teaching these kids, you become kind of like a family, and they spend a lot of time with you. You see them grow up.”
Tool she can’t live without: A smartwatch that allows her to control the studio’s music during rehearsal.
As a professional dancer, Michele Xiques lived out of a dance bag and a couple of suitcases. Wherever a contract sent her—Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta—she would leap there in a heartbeat.
“It’s a lot of physical work … a lot of mental and emotional stress,” Xiques says of being a professional ballerina. But she’s also had her moments on the stage where nothing got to her and she was just doing what she loved.
Xiques started dance classes at a young age, and her mother quickly enrolled her in a new studio when their family moved to Dover (her father was in the military). Her teacher at the former Marion Tracy Dance Studio in Dover recognized her talent, and so Xiques pursued additional training at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Joffrey Ballet.
An injury and the desire to direct brought her home to Delaware, where she continued to pursue ballet as an instructor. (She’s also been a waitress, law office clerk, communications professional and firefighter EMT with Station 41 in Camden-Wyoming.) Then, a friend asked her to take over her dance studio. Since then, several of her students have become professional dancers and one is training at a Russian ballet school.
“I’ve found my purpose because of all the different careers I’ve had that have led me back to where I started,” she says.