"I had never seen snow falling," Derrer said, "and I pulled off and thought, ‘This is where I want to be.'"
Within a year, Derrer resigned from the Miami-Dade police force and moved to Gainesville to be closer to his family.
Soon, he got a job with the Hall County Marshal's Office, now known as the Enforcement Division, and set to work creating and enforcing fire, building and business license codes.
Beginning in September 1981, Derrer shared an office with two other marshals in the basement of the county's administration building. The office was about 8 feet by 8 feet, and housed one brown and gray desk and just two chairs.
"We called it the cheese closet," Derrer recalled, acknowledging that years ago the room was used to store cheese to be distributed to the needy.
Derrer worked in same building for 26 years - though in a bigger office - until last week.
Friday evening, Derrer turned off the lights in his third-floor office overlooking downtown Gainesville and shut the door. Thus ended his 26 years of public service in Hall County.
Derrer is among the first of about 60 Hall County employees who will retire during the next six months, as the old Hall County retirement plan presents the opportunity for numerous veteran employees to retire by June.
Employees sing his praises
Before being named Hall County public works director three years ago, Derrer was warden at the Hall County Correctional Institute for 11 years. In that time, he implemented the GED and anger management programs at the prison, and worked closely with current Warden Don Nix and Cpl. Clint Sloan.
The correctional institute also won state facility of the year under Derrer's direction.
"Working under him has been a great experience for me. I've never had a better supervisor. We worked as a team," said Nix, who had served as deputy warden to Derrer and also retired Friday.
"If you don't have discipline, then you don't have a prison, and Doug taught me that."
Sloan worked with Derrer for 23 years, first as a fellow code enforcement officer in the "cheese closet," then at the correctional institute. Sloan remained under Derrer's supervision as Derrer was promoted to public safety director and then public works director.
"He's one of the finest men I've ever worked with and worked for," Sloan said. "He can be your boss, but he can be your best friend, too.
"Hall County has done itself well having a man of Doug's capability on its payroll. He's done a fantastic job in every department he's been in."
Job was a learning experience
As public works director, Derrer oversaw nearly all day-to-day county operations. His responsibilities ranged from road maintenance and the recycling and landfill divisions to traffic engineering and animal control.
In an average year, Derrer managed 237 state inmates, 500 public works vehicles, 1,100 miles of Hall County roads, 3,537 tons of recycled materials, more than 4,000 animals and 76,000 tons of trash.
Derrer said that he's learned a lot from his time in Hall County government in the varied and integral role of a public works director trying to manage the growth of a thriving county.
"It's taught me how to manage people, projects and budgets," Derrer said. "It's taught me about people, and how to interact with them. I've learned a lot of patience in this job."
As Derrer steps down, co-workers said they feel confident Derrer has trained his staff well enough to make the transition to the next public works director a smooth one.
"I feel like it's my responsibility to build a good team around me that can serve the public," Derrer said. "I work very closely with staff, guiding them, developing them, helping them to be successful. ... I'm interested in investing in them as individuals and as professionals."
Former Hall County Engineering Division Director Kevin McInturff will step up as interim public works director until a new director is hired. McInturff and the future director both will have big shoes to fill.
Since 2000, the population of Hall County has grown by more than 30,000 residents and clicked past the 170,000 count in 2007. Large subdivisions and their accompanying sewer lines and roadways are sprouting up throughout Hall County, as more trash and more lost pets result from the residential influx.
Hall has changed in 26 years
Since Derrer moved to the area in 1981, he said the county's landscape has changed quite a bit since the lone Big Star grocery store beamed in the dark, quiet Oakwood night.
"It was much more rural, there's certainly no doubt about that," Derrer said. "It was refreshing to move here from a big city like Miami, to little old Gainesville. The people were so friendly, and they still are."
Derrer recalls the days before Ga. 365 was complete. The old County Fire Department occupied the current site of the new court house, and aside from the sheriff's office, there wasn't much else bustling on the downtown square except for a Union 76 gas station.
"In the last 10 years, the square has taken a turn for the better ... and I attribute that and the smart growth of the county to the county commissioners, the City Council and other community leaders," Derrer said.
The new county public works director will inherit a number of tasks from Derrer, such as a new SPLOST and several "huge state and local road projects." The new director also will face the added pressure on public works generated by a county moving from an agrarian past to an arguably metropolitan future.
Derrer said that he doesn't plan to spend his days by the lake, lounging in swimming trunks and shades, just yet. He said he's looking for a new job, preferably in government, and preferably in the region.
"I enjoy working with people, and I've always enjoyed being a public servant," Derrer said.
He has some advice for the incoming public works director.
"Invest the time in your staff. Really take the time to get to know them and know their talents," he said. "Take time to listen to the pulse of the community, the taxpayers. Return all calls.
"Once you get to the top, take the elevator back down - and always know the cleaning lady's name."