Six MDOT Workers Enjoy Retirement
Retiring from the Michigan Department of Transportation St. Ignace Service Facility in late 2010 were Jim Litzner, Rose Massey, Keith Barton, Gale Wisner, Stella Obeshaw, and Greg Warren. Their jobs for the highway department were varied, but what they have in common is amassing memorable experiences and lessons during their years with the state.
Driving down the roads in the winter, citizens rarely think about the maze of drains and pipes underneath them. But without that network of pipes, roads in the Upper Peninsula would be destroyed by Mother Nature, says Jim Litzner, who retired as a drain maintenance crew leader for MDOT in St. Ignace December 31, capping a 29-year career.
“What’s going on underground is unbelievable, and there’s not many who think about it,” he said. “Water is the number one killer to our highways. It gets anywhere it wants to go and expands. But with proper maintenance, [roads] stay in good shape.”
He later became a lead drain inspector, too, and was responsible for ensuring all drain systems were up to date, creating maps and blueprints. In that position he discovered “there wasn’t [nearly] enough maintenance being done [on the drain systems]. One of the highlights of my career was taking on that responsibility and putting my heart into it,” he said.
About five years ago, his crew made important repairs on I-75 near the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie. The highway’s corrugated metal drainage pipes, installed in the 1960s, were severely rusted, he said, and his crew “found out what was going on and brought it to [the state’s] attention.”
“I missed that era, because we were busy every day,” he laughs. “We would take our lunch breaks in a pickup truck, and everyone in town would see us as they drove by.”
Reflecting on his career, he said what he enjoyed most was the teamwork. The maintenance crew frequently worked with local governments on projects, he said, providing their expertise on drain systems.
“I always liked it when I could get a good team and people were working together and try to solve problems,” he said. “That’s when the work felt alive.”
In addition to working on drain systems, Mr. Litzner also specialized in winter road maintenance. He often gave snowplow drivers tips, for example, on how to salt roads more effectively during the winter. Time, temperature, and traffic are the three factors that dictate when the roads should be salted, he said.
“At night, there’s no evaporation taking place because it’s cold, so when you put heavy salt on heavy snow, you’re going to have [sloppy] conditions and black ice,” he said. “It creates more hazardous conditions than doing any good.”
He and his wife, Sharon, have three grown sons, Corey, Andrew, and Aaron, and four grandchildren. A recreational builder, he constructed a full-size lighthouse in his backyard in 1988 that provides a picturesque view of the Great Lakes and continues to work on home improvement projects today.
Rose Massey, 50, first joined the state maintenance crew in St. Ignace when she was 18 years old and fresh out of high school and she was the first woman to work there. She retired December 31 after 31 years.
Growing up on a farm in the small town of Isabella on the shoreline of Lake Michigan’s Big Bay De Noc, Mrs. Massey said that she’d already had a lot of knowledge of farm equipment when she started the job, and she quickly earned respect among her male colleagues. She soon found her niche working on a bridge repair crew.
In 1985 she became the leader of her own crew, repairing bridges across the U.P. As the years of work accumulated, she became an authority in her field.
“Through the years, I learned how the structures work and what to do to make them last longer,” she said. “Later in my career, I’d work on bridges that I’d worked on 10 years ago, and I could see how the [work] helped maintain the bridges. A lot of what you learn is from trial and error.”
One particular area that saw great improvement over the course of her career was preventive maintenance on bridges. Starting out, little was done to address the lifespan of bridges over the long-term, she said.
“I look at the program from when we started to where we are today and it’s gone so far,” she said, referring to those improvements. “I enjoyed working with everyone and learned a lot through the years.”
She and her husband, Ray, enjoy outdoor activities such as walking and fishing, and enjoy traveling. They also enjoy going to casinos and are planning a trip to Las Vegas in the near future.
Retiring this past November, Keith Barton of Trout Lake said that, as a mechanic working for MDOT in St. Ignace, his job criteria was fairly straightforward: “To keep the equipment rolling.”
A mechanic since the early 1970s, Mr. Barton worked for the St. Ignace Department of Public Works and George’s Body Shop before joining the state workforce. He’s always had a flair for repairing broken equipment, and as the lead mechanic serving Mackinac County, he would fix anything from snow removal trucks to heavy construction equipment, and engines of all shapes and sizes.
Simply put, he was a jack of all trades, the one employees turned to when something needed to be repaired.
“You had to be well-rounded,” he said. “It would have been nice to specialize in one component, but you had to know about everything and keep on it.”
The evolution of technology over the course of those two decades was staggering, he said, and mechanics were always learning something new. Computer technology for snow trucks, for example, is now able to monitor how many pounds of salt is dumped per mile, and the trucks are now equipped with four or five computers.
But with any new technology, there were also a host of new problems for mechanics to solve, he said, explaining that no equipment is impervious to failure.
“There are still troubles with the equipment and computer technology,” he salt. “Salt would get into the wiring and cause havoc.”
But along with advances in technology, the state has also downsized its workforce in recent years, he said. That’s why teamwork played such a pivotal role in his job.
“Somehow we made it all work together with teamwork,” he said. “That’s one thing that I’m really going to miss.”
And while his days of fixing equipment as a state employee are over, Mr. Barton says he has plenty of home improvement projects up his sleeve to keep him busy in the meantime. He also enjoys fishing, boating, cross-country skiing, and hunting.
Gale Wisner, a mechanic at the St. Ignace garage for more than two decades, vividly remembers driving down icy roads with no visibility en route to repair snow trucks.
“Our goal was to keep people safe,” said Mr. Wisner, who retired in December after working for the state for 25 years. “We took pride in always doing good work.”
A graduate of Cedarville High School, Mr. Wisner, 54, started his career at a maintenance garage in Auburn Hills for four years before transferring to St. Ignace in 1989. Working on a two-man crew with Mr. Barton, his job was to fix anything that broke, including snowplow trucks, chainsaws, lawn mowers, weed trimmers, and hydraulic machinery.
Winters were always the busiest time of year at the garage, he said, with plow trucks needing frequent repairs. He and Mr. Barton sometimes had to repair 10 of the county’s fleet of 12 trucks in one week.
“Winters were tough, so during the summer time we could actually breathe,” he said, adding that in addition to St. Ignace, the crew served garages in Cedarville and Engadine. “The winters just disintegrate trucks; within a two-day period the whole fleet can go down.”
Like Mr. Barton, Mr. Wisner said he was constantly learning to operate new equipment on the job. When foreman and inspector positions at the garage were terminated in the mid 1990s, the two-man crew was essentially self-directed, responsible for doing everything on their own.
“There was a learning curve every year when a new truck came into the shop,” he said. “I was fortunate to know a lot about computers.”
What made his job most gratifying was building and fabricating equipment, he said, explaining that he’s always had an affinity for construction work. Right now he’s putting the final touches on a house in St. Ignace that he’s built by himself over the past three years during his spare time away from work.
“I love the challenge of building something from nothing,” he said. “And in the garage, there was always as much work as you wanted to do.”
Before retiring, Mr. Wisner gave new workers at the garage a nugget of wisdom he learned over the years: “I told people it’s going to be the best job and the worst job you ever had,” he said.
Mr. Wisner and his wife, Marcia, have three grown children, Ross, Kathy, and Kim, all living in Colorado. He enjoys sailing, snowmobiling, hunting, and fishing during his free time.
And, of course, he’ll always be a builder.
“It’s been a good ride, but I’m not done,” he said.
Entering the Michigan Welcome Center in St. Ignace after long hours on the road, visitors were always welcomed by Stella Obeshaw’s gregarious smile. Mrs. Obeshaw, 67, worked at the center for 15 years as an assistant manager before retiring December 31.
She had a penchant for answering tourists’ questions, hunting down maps, and guiding them to points of interest around town. But above all, “I loved to talk to the people,” she said, adding that she plans to write a book someday based on her brief chats with visitors across the state. “You’d be surprised by the stories that people would walk in and tell me — their life stories.”
She also had a reputation for being a good Samaritan, helping drivers fix their flat tires and providing stranded sojourners with a place to stay at her home in St. Ignace. She once housed a college student whose car broke down in a winter storm and who was out of money.
“I’ve never been afraid to bring people into my house; I was raised that way,” she said. “Growing up, my mother never passed up a hitchhiker, even when she was in her early nineties.”
Her retirement was spurred by cuts made by the state to welcome centers, she said. Last year, the welcome center was cut down to five days a week, closed on the weekends and holidays. She thinks that the reduced hours might have a negative impact on tourism.
“I think this summer is going to be an eye-opener for local businesses,” she said, “because their exposure form advertising [at the center] will be down,” she said, adding that the center was always the busiest on summer weekends.
But while she’s no longer at the center, she’s stayed in touch with her visitors over the years, and gets birthday and holiday cards from some of them in the mail. One elderly couple, motorcyclists, even visited while she was in the hospital, she said.
She’ll always look back on her career fondly.
“If I had to do it over again, I’d choose to work at the welcome center,” she said.
She lives with her second husband, Jim Bishop, and has six grown children from her first marriage with the late Ron Obeshaw: Richard, Linda, Dale, Patrick, Marcia, and Ron. She has 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Mr. Warren was unavailable to be interviewed by The St. Ignace News for this article.