After 32 years with the Bangor public works department, outgoing director Dana Wardwell’s last day on the job could have been quieter.
But it happened to be the day of Bangor’s first significant snowfall of the season, which dumped a half-foot of snow on the city and scrambled dozens of plow drivers into action. Not only was Wardwell’s department buzzing during the storm, it also had to remove recently fallen leaves and other obstacles from the road ahead of time.
Luckily for Wardwell, he had largely passed the baton to his successor, Eric Willett, by late last week.
“I consider myself a lame duck,” he said during a Thursday interview. “Eric’s making decisions. We’ve brought him up to speed.”
Wardwell, 64, retired at the end of last week after spending 14 years as the head of the public works department, which manages the city’s roads, sidewalks, vegetation, waste removal and cemeteries. Before that, he filled many other roles in the department, including leaf raker, trash collector, labor foreman and construction foreman.
“I’ve always worked in the dirt,” he said. “I’ve never asked anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. That’s important, that the crew knows what you’re talking about.”
On his way out the door, the city made sure to honor Wardwell, who will continue to live in Orrington after his retirement.
At a City Council meeting last week, the group presented him with a plaque and a proclamation recognizing his contributions during a period of change for the city, which saw upgrades to its streets, sidewalks, waterfront and other infrastructure.
“It’s tough when you lose people who have so many dedicated years of service,” said Councilor David Nealley, who helped present Wardwell’s plaque last week. “With that you lose so many years of institutional knowledge.”
Nealley predicted that Wardwell will stay plenty busy in retirement, whether that’s driving his own plow truck or helping with a family business. He also said the city has found a strong successor in Willett, who previously worked as the city’s fleet maintenance supervisor.
City Manager Catherine Conlow, who started working for the city eight years ago, also had warm words for Wardwell.
She recalled the time when a weekend event was being held at the Cross Insurance Center, and Wardwell decided to monitor how well drivers were handling a new traffic pattern in that area, even though he didn’t have to.
“He was very good at what he did, and he was very dedicated,” she said. “He really went the extra mile.”
He also was modest, playing “the aw gee, I’m just a public works guy” card, Conlow said, even though he was innovative and often willing to adopt new technology in his department. “He really knows a lot more than he lets on.”
Besides leading Bangor through a time of infrastructure changes, Wardwell also helped see the city through countless damaging weather events, ranging from wind, rain and snow to the most dramatic event of his career.
In early January 1998, a freezing rain fell for several days in a row, snapping power lines and leaving hundreds of thousands of Maine homes without electricity.
“I can remember driving around that night,” said Wardwell, who was then working as a construction foreman for the city. “I can remember looking out across the city and seeing transformers blowing these large explosions. Just wow.”
He also remembered the eerie quiet that fell over the city as the ice fell, periodically interrupted by the cracking of a tree. In the aftermath, crews worked many hours of overtime. They eventually had to use grading machines to peel back the thick layers of ice that had frozen on streets.
“It was such an unbelievable storm and time,” Wardwell said.
In the decades Wardwell worked for the city, some things changed, including the total size of the public works department.
It had about 106 staff when he started, but that number has shrunk to about 63 now. Some of the downsizing was related to budget cuts, Wardwell said. In the early 1990s, the assignment of trash collection to a contractor also led to a half dozen positions being cut.
Another change had to do with how the city handles winter weather. It used to install fences that were meant to catch snow drifts blowing across open tracts of land, but it has abandoned that practice because so many parcels have been developed.
Along the way, technological advances have altered how the city operates equipment and interacts with the public.
But overall, “the work really hasn’t changed much,” Wardwell said. “Potholes are potholes.”
Another thing that’s remained consistent, according to Wardwell, is that it has never been one person responding to a storm, flood or pothole.
“It’s a team effort,” he said. “The whole city is really cooperative. We have a lot of support right from the council on through all the departments to every employee. We have really good people here.”