Wisconsin has 72 Counties, 190 Cities, 1,246 Towns, and 414 Villages. It takes A LOT of people–more than 70,000 Wisconsinites–to do the nitty-gritty work that keeps our communities ticking. Warren Howard is one of them.
Warren Howard | Marinette, WI
He was into aviation, and he and my grandfather both had their pilot’s license. My youngest brother followed some of their passions and became an airline pilot for United Airlines, while I was a hands-on guy like Dad. My passion became cars.
When I graduated from Crivitz High School, the city had an opening for a laborer. I applied after being told, “Well, the city doesn’t pay a lot, but they have good benefits and good job security.” I started working with the city of Marinette in 1979.
At that time, everybody started out by working on garbage–the bottom floor. I rode the garbage truck, picking up and hauling garbage for a year and a half. But the superintendent at that time saw I was pretty handy. I was changing guys’ oil on my lunch hour, and he said, “Hey, we’re looking for a mechanic in the future. What do you think?” So, I was sent to school and became certified as a car and truck mechanic in 1981.
After ten years as a mechanic, I started in the wastewater treatment plant after our new plant was finished because they needed another operator. The plant is an important part of the health of the city and protecting the environment. But I didn’t realize until I started how complicated the biological processes were and how wastewater treatment facilities really ran. We are basically running the same activated sludge plant as when I started, to handle the by-products of wastewater treatment. There have been some upgrades. But mostly the plant is using the same process as in the 1990s. Even though we believe in technology changes, bugs don’t change—bugs have been in our systems forever—it’s how you treat the bugs that changes.
In 2000, I moved into the chief operator’s position, in charge of the wastewater plant. But in 2014, the mayor pulled me into her office and said, “Hey, we need somebody to run the water plant too. I’m kind of suggesting that would be a good fit for you.” So, I started managing both utilities. In 2017, the current Mayor, Steve Genisot called and said the state Department of Natural Resources and representatives from Tyco’s Wisconsin Fire Technology Center were meeting at City Hall. Tyco said they had polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on-site; it had gotten off-site into the area of the City of Marinette and the Town of Peshtigo.
I had to become educated about it quickly; PFAS are forms of industrial toxic chemicals that can pollute water. I think that the public is getting educated too. The mayor wanted to do the right thing. We started sampling drinking water, then our water and the wastewater facility, and then the biosolids. We knew it was going to have the PFAS in it because Tyco was sending it to us. We were the first Wisconsin municipality to really do a lot of sampling, and the mayor still suggests that we sample even though our water’s good; it still has trace amounts of PFAS that we want to monitor.
Managing both utilities means I don’t get the opportunity to do as much hands-on work as I’d like. But I still put on the city uniform any chance I get. We need to wear the uniform when we’re working on mechanical stuff. Nowadays my uniform gets washed probably once every couple of weeks. Just last week I was working on the sewer truck because they were having a problem getting to the grease fittings. I showed them a trick I had learned years ago and it worked.
Lately, we have a lot of meetings about the PFAS, so it takes me away from what I’d like to do. I love being outdoors, but we need to stay on top of the PFAS contamination. I start working at the wastewater plant before anybody gets there to catch up on all my emails and get stuff done. I walk the plant every morning. Even if it’s raining, I walk the plant and I’m just fortunate that I can do those things. I love to do that kind of work.
If I had to sit in this office all day, I’d retire. I prefer to jump in my car and go over to the plant and say, “Hey, what are you guys doing today?” If they say, “We’re cleaning tanks,” then I help with the cleaning. And so on. I enjoy that. I think the workers appreciate that, and it gives them an opportunity to do other things.
With forty-two years in, I’m young yet, but I’m getting closer to the end of my career at the city. I’m sixty-two, but I feel like I’m forty—my brain’s forty. But I have to watch it because I’ve wrestled and coached wrestling for many years; there’s a wrestling mentality. If you said, “dig a hole,” I’ll dig the hole. But that next night my back will be killing me. As far as retirement is concerned, I still enjoy what I’m doing. People need a purpose because if you don’t think you’re helping, you’re just dead weight. There might be a day that I’m dead weight, but there’s still a purpose here for me here.
This story was produced by Scott Schultz and is part of our Wisconsin municipal workers’ series. Want to learn more about local government? Check out the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Citizen’s Guide to Wisconsin’s Cities and Villages.
This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.