Harrison County

Five mayors have counted on this ‘rock star’ at Gulfport city hall

Rebecca Kajdan waited nervously in the lobby of City Hall.

A new mayor, Ken Combs, had swept into the columned building for his first day in office. Kajdan figured she was either out of a job or about to be transferred. She had come to work as assistant to the mayor four years earlier, in 1997, at the request of Mayor Bob Short, whom Combs defeated.

The mayor’s assistant serves at his will and pleasure, without civil service protection. Kajdan understood Combs would probably want to pick his own assistant.

She had been sitting in the lobby about 45 minutes when Combs strolled out at 8:20 a.m.

“Are you coming to work today?” he asked.

“I said, ‘Yes,’” Kajdan recalled. “He said, ‘OK, let’s get to it.’ We never spoke about it again. That was it.”

Kajdan must be one of the few mayor’s assistants in Mississippi who has held the job for almost 20 years — through five administrations. People see her buzzing around city hall, setting up for receptions and fielding phone calls in the office just outside the mayor’s. But only those who work with her realize just how indispensable she has become to running the city.

She’s a troubleshooter, decorator, chef, counselor, planner, organizer and friend to all.

Kajdan would not agree at all that she is such an asset. Modesty is another of her virtues. When she heard the Sun Herald wanted to profile her, she was horrified. She agreed only after a little arm-twisting by current Mayor Billy Hewes and public information officer Chris Vignes, her partner in disaster relief efforts and all sorts of city-sponsored work.

“I fly under the radar,” she said. “I’m a doer. I don’t like the limelight.”

‘Heart of a servant’

Kajdan likes to talk about the contributions of others. She greatly admires people who have what she calls “the heart of a servant.” Others describe her as having such a heart. She gets it from her parents. Her father, Henry Kremer, continues to volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul at age 83.

Kremer, who was an owner of Kremer Marine on Bayou Bernard, was fond of saying that he considered it the Lord’s work to pay a grocery or light bill so the beneficiary could catch his or her breath. Her mother, Willidonna Kremer, was a special education teacher.

Volunteering is a way of life for the family, and it’s something Kajdan has passed on to her sons, Alex and Harrison — Harry for short. She tears up at the mention of her family because they are everything to her, including her sister, Susan Jones, and her two children. The sisters and their children all followed the lead of Kajdan’s father, attending the University of Mississippi.

“She is constantly trying to think of ways to make people's lives easier or better,” Jones said. “If somebody is having a bad day, Rebecca is going to bring them a happy.”

Before joining the city, Kajdan worked at Hancock Bank, where she rose to the position of marketing director, and at President Casino in Biloxi, where she headed sales, marketing and promotions. The 24-7 casino life was not for her.

“I would find myself at the casino at 4 o’clock in the morning,” she said, “and I would have to be at the soccer field at 7 a.m.”

Bob Short knew when he hired Kajdan that she was a people person and a great organizer. She pulled together a Christmas event each year in Bayou View, where Short rode in on a fire truck as Santa Claus and volunteered with the Special Olympics.

Short soon learned his assistant had another talent. She’s good at taking the long view. Short was reluctant to contribute a hefty donation from the city for Cruisin’ The Coast, a vintage auto show that was then in its infancy. Kajdan convinced him it was a good idea.

“She would always say, ‘Let’s look at it this way,’” Short said. The annual event has turned into one of the Coast’s biggest tourist draws.

‘Wonder woman’

Kajdan has adjusted to the personal style of each of the mayors. Brent Warr, who succeeded Combs in 2005, kept a handwritten list of his events for the day in his breast pocket. His “Blackberry,” he called it. Each afternoon, Kajdan filled in a card with the next day’s schedule and he revised it as he went.

George Schloegel, who took office in 2009, liked a printed schedule. The current mayor, Billy Hewes, keeps a computerized schedule, consulting his phone to keep track of appointments.

“I've always been amazed at Rebecca's positive attitude,” Schloegel said. “No challenge is beyond her willingness to meet the task. She has incredible recall. I could rarely give her a name without her knowing that person's phone number off the top of her head. She's a walking telephone directory. She is talented as a master cook and an event planner.

“She's loyal and committed, and she loves the city and people of Gulfport almost as much as she loves Ole Miss.”

Warr said he was always impressed by Kajdan’s ability to multitask. He can remember watching her have a conversation on her cell phone, answer the desk phone and type — all at the same time.

Hurricane Katrina hit shortly after Warr took office. “She was like Wonder Woman during the storm,” he said. “She did so much, it was unbelievable. I knew at that time that I couldn't let her go work for anyone else in the city. I had to keep her for myself.”

Kajdan’s family likes to guess how many times her phone will ring during dinner.

Finding the right person to solve a resident’s problem is one of the jobs she most enjoys. Rather than talking about all she does, though, Kajdan praises the city staff as the best around. Her co-workers are like family.

Public Information Officer Vignes likes to play Stump Rebecca. He’s never been successful at it, though.

One day, he got a call from someone who bought shrimp while on the Coast and accidentally left it overnight in the car. “I walked over to Rebecca’s office and asked her straight up, ‘Shrimp smell, out of car?’ She didn’t bat an eye while handling another call and, within what seemed like 15 seconds, she had four suggestions and two numbers to call. Nothing gets by her!”

Vignes, Kajdan and her sister recently delivered school uniforms and supplies to students caught up in tornadoes in the Hattiesburg area. They also handed out bottled water. Kajdan told the people she encountered, “We’ve been where you are, but you’re going to get through this and we’re going to come back and help you.”

Her sister said she could see the wheels turning in Kajdan’s head, planning how she would muster support for the Pine Belt’s recovery. Kajdan often turns to her Facebook page, appealing for clothes when a family has a fire, or for help in other emergency situations.

Her idea of relaxation is to organize an event, decorate a mantle or bake a strawberry cake. Her culinary skills ares praised far and wide.

“She’s a rock star,” Vignes said. “She’s invaluable to the city. I don’t even know how to put it. She keeps the trains on the tracks and all of us going. It is kind of a lifestyle decision to be in this line of work.”

‘The perfect job’

When Short left office, Kajdan packed her things in a box. It’s still stored at City Hall. She hardly remembered what she had put inside almost 15 years ago. The box is under a stairwell on the west side of city hall.

She recently brushed dust off the top and opened the box at the Sun Herald’s request. Inside, she found lots of photos of Harry and Alex, along with old Sun Herald articles, one featuring a picture of Alex at the Gulfport Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and another with a photo of Harry and her from October 2000. The headline one the story read, “On the Rebound: Gulfport Boy Bounces Back from cancer, lives life to the fullest.”

Her city family helped the Kajdans through Harry’s cancer ordeal.

She remembers how she felt when she packed that box.

“I was so sad,” she said, “because I love what I do. I didn’t want to stop doing this. I really have the perfect job for me.”