Nelda Fields marking end of a 50-year career with City of PCB
Nelda Fields is officially retiring from the City of Panama City Beach after a 50-year span of service to the citizens of her adopted hometown. She is one of the longest serving employees in the City and was, in fact, an employee before PCB was a city.
“I started with the City in 1968 not long after we moved down here, and it was so different then,” said Nelda. “I never even filled out an application. I couldn’t tell you what I made.”
At the time the City was called West Panama City Beach. Two years after her employment, the City merged with the towns of Panama City Beach, Edgewater Gulf Beach and Long Beach Resort to become The City of Panama City Beach.
“They tried to bring in Laguna Beach, but the property owners over there protested,” she recalls.
When she began her career with the City, she was one of 12 employees that included police, a fire chief with a volunteer fire department, a city clerk and water department employees.
“The City built a gymnasium that became the existing City Hall. There was a library that was converted to the building department. The fire chief and his wife lived on site. It was very small compared to today.”
Her husband, Elgin “Popeye” Fields, was also a City employee, working at the City Pier which today bears his name and that of PCB’s first mayor Dan Russell.
The family had several businesses, including a gas station, motel, restaurant and tackle shop. Her parents ran the gas station, located on property that ran from Front Beach to Back Beach roads, which they paid $3,500 for in 1954. The newlyweds were recruited to come down and join the family business. "Before I could say a word my husband said, ‘We’ll be there.’ All he could think about was fishing.”
Dan Russell, who was then mayor of West Panama City Beach, asked Nelda what she did in Birmingham after she graduated business school. Nelda did payroll for a large company. Mayor Russell asked Nelda to come take a look at the City’s new machine, because no one knew how to use the Burroughs Bookkeeping Machine.
“It was identical to the one I used in Birmingham. I was 24 years old when I did the first water billing the City had ever done. We had 500 customers.”
Because the City was so small, Nelda became a Jill of all trades. She answered the phone and sometimes dispatched calls on the police radio.
“They didn’t like me doing the radio,” she says. “I didn’t know any of the codes and I would say, ‘There’s somebody getting robbed!’”
Only three of those original employees from 1968 are alive today. And, oh, the things they experienced! “My husband was a volunteer fireman. Once on the way to a fire, they had to stop because the fire truck was on fire. They had to put it out, then went on to the fire.”
Times were so different back then, she said. Take for example, that Nelda was never officially hired. She just walked in one day and started working. She walked out when she was pregnant with her second child, Sean. Mayor Russell wouldn’t have it, however, and took the work to Nelda, at the family’s tackle shop.
“The family agreed I couldn’t say no because the City was a big customer!”
As she was raising two sons, Nelda was again approached by the mayor to come back full-time at the water department.
Upon her return in 1978, Nelda was officially hired through the City’s Civil Service Board. “It was a small town. Everybody who interviewed me, I knew them.”
Nelda worked in Utilities, Accounts Payable, Payroll and Accounting, eventually landing in Business Licensing.
One of her dearest friends, Gale Wright, joined the City in 1970, retiring in 2007. Like Nelda, she worked a variety of jobs before becoming the secretary for the first five mayors.
In all, Nelda worked for six mayors and 28 council members since Panama City Beach was chartered. “We had a real small room for the council meetings. And we used to do fish fries at City Hall. The fish fries were for all the citizens of Panama City Beach. We always did it after Labor Day. We had so many tourists, cars just inched along on Front Beach and Back Beach and the roads were only two laned. The season was from Memorial Day to Labor Day.”
Today the City has grown to about 300 employees, plus part-time and seasonal workers. “I think the City has had great growth and been successful,” Nelda said. “We’ve had good people in office who worked on the City’s growth. You may not always have agreed with all of them, but they had a love for the City.”
In those days, there were no beach condos. “When the Fontainebleau was built, we thought it was a high rise. Then they built the Miracle Strip Tower and it was taller.”
While people often complain about beach traffic, with more than 17 million visiting PCB each year, Nelda says the City was always going to draw tourists because of the beauty of the beaches and the hospitality of its people.
“Sometimes I miss it the way it was, but I like the growth. Sure, the traffic is a little much sometimes.”
At her other job, manning the information desk for the Tourist Development Council at the Northwest Florida Beaches Airport, Nelda educates people about the area.
“Working at the airport, everybody comes to my counter! I am also Dear Abby.”
Nelda, the unofficial City historian, has 75 years of life experiences and remembers the family service station selling gas for 25.9 cents a gallon and cigarettes for 50 cents a pack.
Of the City’s first mayor, Russell, who served from 1970-1980, she says: “He was very smart. He could have been a doctor and was pursuing a medical degree.”
“Mike Mayor Thomas was so good to my husband, who was diabetic and thought he was going to lose a leg. He was told to do the hyperbaric chamber. He couldn’t do it. Mike talked him into doing it. Mike said he wasn’t going to haul Popeye to the boat to fish. So my husband went back in and his leg was saved.”
Nelda said former mayor Gayle Oberst has always been and remains a good friend and she remembers former mayor Philip Griffiths as a fun person.
She knew former mayor Lee Sullivan when he was a young man. “He and his wife, Debbie, are dear friends of mine,” Nelda says.
Nelda has mostly kind word for everyone. “There is something good in everybody. You have to find it sometimes though.”
In terms of loyalty, she doesn’t hesitate when she says she lives at the world’s most beautiful beaches. “I will not live anywhere else than the beach, and I do hate leaving my work family at the City. I love meeting the people who come in.”
Nelda will travel after retirement, and expects to increase her hours with the TDC.
“I love it at the airport and the Visitor’s Center. I love to talk with people and share information about our beaches,” she said. “But it’s time to retire from the City. It’s been a fun trip, but it’s time.”
Nelda’s last day with the City is May 1.
Public Information Officer Debbie Ward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 233-5100, Ext. 2261.