Spearfish public works administrator retires after 37 years of service

April 16, 2019

SPEARFISH — Though she initially said during her job interview that she thought she would stay for at least five years in Spearfish, Cheryl Johnson, public works administrator, has no regrets that her tenure lasted 37 years.

“I say I grew up with the city,” she said.

Johnson, who retires at the end of the week, became the first superintendent for the city’s new wastewater treatment plant, which was being constructed when she was hired in 1982. At the time, she was 22.

Johnson grew up in Indiana and attended Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, where she received her associate’s degree in environmental science. At the time, her goal was to become a regulator with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She interviewed for a seasonal position with the city of Broomfield, Colo., hoping to get a job in the lab, but they had already filled the position and instead offered her a spot at their wastewater treatment plant. While she initially wasn’t very excited by the prospect, Johnson chose to give it a chance, and by the end of the summer, she was fascinated and knew her career goal had changed: She wanted to be part of the utilities that made the impact, that protected the environment, and that did the work.

She said that what first drew her interest was the variety that came with wastewater treatment: It’s biology, it’s chemistry, it’s mechanical, it’s janitorial, it’s grounds keeping, and then there’s a level of supervision with reporting to regulatory agencies, analysis in the labs have to be verified, etc., so it was a career, for Johnson, that really made an impact. Every week when she saw the clean water, she knew she was in the right place, doing something good for the environment.

At the end of the summer, Broomfield offered Johnson a full-time position as an operator, and she stayed on, earning additional certifications and training. It was through this position that Johnson formed a connection to Spearfish, unbeknownst to her. The engineering company on contract with Broomfield, CWC, had also been hired by the city of Spearfish to design a wastewater treatment plant. Following a lawsuit after the city’s lagoon treatment system had failed, the city was mandated to build a new treatment plant, with regulatory agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and EPA involved.

Johnson described that the plant is an advanced treatment plant that utilizes activated sludge. There were not many of those facilities in South Dakota at the time, so finding someone with the training and background to run the plant was a bit of a challenge. Spearfish had started its search for a superintendent and had offered the position to others before changing its tack and seeking out Johnson.

She had no idea at the time, but later, she learned that as construction on the Spearfish plant progressed, the city was feeling the pressure to get someone in place to get the plant up and running and into compliance with the EPA. CWC’s project engineer mentioned Johnson’s name as a possibility, as the firm knew her from their work in Broomfield.

Art Jones, the facilities manager at Black Hills State College (now University), was on the city council at the time and traveled to Broomfield to visit its wastewater treatment plant. Johnson was working a weekend shift by herself and was introduced to Jones, with the understanding that he was scoping out the plant – not that he was scoping her out as a potential job candidate. Johnson chattered on about the plant and the process and didn’t think much about the visit until a few days later when her superintendent pulled her into his office and told her that the city of Spearfish wanted to interview her for its superintendent position.

Johnson was shocked; while it is the goal of most operators to someday have their own plant, she was at the beginning of her career and hadn’t yet received her Class A license yet, so she change track and skipped taking her Class B to move ahead, and a week after taking her test, she flew to Rapid City to have an interview in Spearfish.

Johnson remembers flying into the former airport in Rapid City, which had two gates at the time. When she tried to see the city below, she couldn’t see anything and thought they were landing in the middle of the prairie. Never having visiting South Dakota before, she wasn’t sure what to think.

A city employee picked Johnson up from the airport in an old pickup and dropped her at Old City Hall on Main Street. Johnson later learned that city staff were peeking out the window to catch a glimpse of the 22-year-old woman interviewing for the wastewater treatment superintendent position, which had a starting salary of $10 per hour.

Johnson remembers the group of council members and others at the interview, and what mostly stands out is the lack of technical questions about the wastewater treatment process, which is what Johnson wanted to discuss. Instead, they asked her whether she knew how to drive a manual transmission, whether she planned to get married and have children, etc. Johnson turned the conversation toward activated sludge, the design of the wastewater treatment plant, and other things pertinent to the role of a plant superintendent.

“When I flew back that afternoon, I told a friend, ‘I have been to Mayberry and back,’” Johnson remembers, though she did get the feeling that she would be offered the job. Sure enough, three days later, she got a call with a job offer – and she took it. Johnson moved to Spearfish and experienced the completion of the construction of the plant, hiring operators, and starting up the plant in the first three months, in addition to getting weekly visits from regulatory agencies, meeting all of the personalities involved in city government, and learning what it’s like to be a superintendent.

One operator, Tom Tiritilli, had already been hired prior to Johnson. The first operator she hired was Tom Callaway, and the training began, as none of the early operators had ever worked in activated sludge before. Within the first 60 days of the plant’s operation, which began in October 1982, it was in total compliance with its discharge permit, and Johnson said she would match her operators against anyone, as well as the plant, which is well-designed to do what it is supposed to do, she said.

The real nod of approval, Johnson said, was receiving a national award from the EPA in 1986. The plant had been recognized with state awards prior to that, but this was the first time the national award, for excellence in operation and maintenance, had been introduced. Spearfish’s plant won in the small plant category, which Johnson described as a “gold star” for the community.

The EPA offered to fly Johnson to Los Angeles to accept the award, but she knew she couldn’t go alone, and she begged the city council to let her, Callaway, and Tiritilli go together. The council reluctantly agreed to allow it and to fund some airfare, and the rest of the funding came from the three pooling their resources, sharing hotel rooms, and making meals in their rooms. But all three were in Los Angeles to accept the award, and this concept of not achieving anything alone is something that Johnson has been well aware of throughout her life and career.

Johnson knows that she was given a lot of responsibility to provide leadership, and she said one of her strengths is being about to pick her teams, knowing her staff and their strengths, and being able to organize that to make things change and happen.

The other thing Johnson learned early on is that she refuses to go by the status quo and is always looking to do things a little differently. She described that every project that would come along, no matter how small, she always wanted to take it to the next level, look at it a different way, or make it like no one else has.

While public works is not always thought of as a creative field, Johnson would encourage her staff to pretend that whatever project they were working on was going to be photographed and put on the next cover of “Better Homes and Gardens,” and she said that they got it, coming back with incredible ideas.

“That was fun,” she said, adding that when people ask about the hardest or most fun part of her job, or what she’s most proud of, the answer is the same: “It’s staff.”

Johnson served as the wastewater treatment plant superintendent for 20 years, until 2002, when she became the public works administrator. She had never thought about taking the position and said she never would have applied for it, but things were changing in the city. The city had started a rubble site, which was under Johnson’s purview, given her experience with regulatory permits, as well as its proximity to the wastewater treatment plant. She was also very involved with council meetings and was familiar with that process. As the city was evolving, the public works director was coming to Johnson more and more, and eventually, the position opened, with a few people taking the position before vacating it again without much time passing.

The city council was feeing the pressure to keep the position filled, and Johnson remembers being approached by then-Mayor Jerry Krambeck, who asked her to consider it. She said she would – but with caveats. At the time, the position was annually appointed by the mayor, and Johnson said that unless it was a hired position, she wouldn’t consider it. She also wanted all of the public works departments under one umbrella, versus parsing them out, as was first described to her. Finally, she said that she would only consider it on an interim basis – if, after six months, both she and the city council were happy with the situation, she would stay, and if not, her job at the wastewater treatment plant would be restored.

And 17 years later, both parties seem satisfied with the arrangement. City Council President Dan Hodgs congratulated Johnson Tuesday during Johnson’s final public works committee meeting as the public works administrator and said that she – and her knowledge of the city – would be greatly missed.

“I think as a supervisor, she really … cares about growing her people and their skills,” City Planner Jayna Watson, who has worked with Johnson for 14 years, said.

“Cheryl has really amazing vision for long-term growth and development, especially public works and the recreation system in the city,” Watson added. “I can’t tell you something that Cheryl was not involved with … She was always wanting to pioneer something or do something that we’ve never done.”

Johnson said that as public works administrator, there is always something new to deal with, some problem to fix, and around town, she can see all of the impacts made by the public works departments, from the streets, to the rec path, to the hydroelectric plant, to the parks, to the rec center, and beyond. She is proud that those teams, including the city councils over the years who provided trust, support, and openness to new ideas, helped earn the city the reputation of being a progressive community and helped shape Spearfish into what it is today.

“It didn’t just happen,” Johnson said. “There was thought put into that. … I hope that’s something that the community feels,” adding that she loves to hear people who are visiting Spearfish for the first time describe the community’s unique look and feel.

“It was fun to be part of that. I can’t begin to say how fortunate I feel to have what I have. It was that trust, it was that ability to be creative, and it was also that ability to get things done, to kind of help direct what this community did,” Johnson said.

George Martin, current city councilman and former streets superintendent who worked with Johnson for 24 years, said that he’s always enjoyed working with Johnson.

“She always made you feel you were working with her, and not for her,” he said, adding, “We’re going to miss her. The whole city’s going to miss her.”

Johnson has a lifetime of stories from her experiences at the city and with the staffs with whom she has worked. She described that during her time at the wastewater treatment plant, during a “Capital for the Day” in Spearfish, she was assigned to drive then-Gov. George S. Mickelson around to the various events. At the time, the city only had pickup trucks, and the treatment plant generally got the “leftovers,” so when she picked up the governor – a tall man – in the old Dodge truck with a bench seat, she described that his kneecaps were above the dashboard! Johnson kept asking Mickelson if he would like to drive, but he very politely declined, and to this day, she is sure he probably had bruises on his knees afterward. She shared the story with Mickelson’s son, Mark, a few years ago, and she said he cracked up at the story about his late father.

Winter Storm Atlas in 2013 also stands out in Johnson’s mind. Staff from every department helped in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and the response of the community – “It was amazing how this community picked itself up,” Johnson said.

Johnson keeps a photo album from her years with the city, and many of the photos capture past Administrative Professionals Day celebrations. Never one to go with the usual, Johnson helped plan more unique events, such as hiring a limo to take city hall’s administrative professionals to the city park pavilion, where the stage was set with a table, complete with linens, China, a fancy lunch, and live violin music to serenade the group. Another year, the administrative professionals were treated to a brunch at the top of Lookout Mountain, an experience many had never had before. When Julie Myers, a public works administrative assistant, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2017, staff found the pinecones she had collected during the brunch on her desk when it was being cleaned out.

“It’s not just a job,” Johnson said, describing the connections with staff. As she looks through the photos now, many of the people pictured through the years have since retired, and she was always told that she would know when it was time to retire, and that time has come.

Johnson plans to do some traveling and get back to some of the things she has given up, due to the level of commitment required at her job. She is looking forward to being able to garden and spend more time fishing, camping, kayaking, etc., as well as have more flexibility. In her role, she often had to plan trips around city council meetings, so she is looking forward to having more freedom in her schedule.

“It was time. The next door opened, and it’s time to go make the most of all that,” Johnson said, adding that the decision to retire wasn’t as easy as she though it would be, as it includes leaving an identity and a huge part of her life. Beth Benning, former city finance officer, who has mentored Johnson throughout her career, reminded Johnson recently that though Benning felt sad prior to her retirement, too, she kept all of the friends she had made during her time with the city and looked back on all they accomplished for this community to make it better. She told Johnson, “You will, too.”

“I love this town; I love this community,” Johnson said, remembering a time when she was bragging up the community to a group visiting, and one of the individuals said, “This place is a regular little Norman Rockwell.”

Johnson agrees, and she couldn’t be happier that her answer about how long she would stay in Spearfish 37 years ago didn’t turn out to be true.

“Mayberry grew up. So did I,” she said.

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