Earley retirement: Long-time Portland Public Works official calls it quits

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PORTLAND — When Steve Earley took a job as a laborer with the city’s Public Works Department in 1974, he thought it would be a temporary gig.

This week, Earley will retire from the department, 36 1/2 years and eight positions later. The current operations director worked his way up from laborer to dispatcher to supervisor and finally manager. And in addition to making friendships along the way, he also met his wife at work.

“We rely on him pretty heavily,” said Mike Bobinsky, director of Public Services, the department once known as public works. “He handles our entire winter operations and emergency response coordination.”

Earley didn’t go to college for engineering or management, but the experience he’s had through the years has given him the knowledge to oversee sidewalk reconstruction, parks improvements and everyday operations at public services.

“This position has a lot of responsibilities,” Earley said. “Your hands are in everything.”

Bobinsky said Earley is well respected within the city and among Public Services workers because of his hands-on experience and ability to remain calm under pressure.

Earley saw the department through several major organizational changes, including the creation of districts. Before the early 1990s, he said, crews would work throughout the city. Now, there are district crews responsible for all of the tasks in their area, from snow removal to street work.

“They’re like ‘renaissance’ workers, they do a little of everything,” Earley said.

Earley responded to a fair share of calls himself during his days as a laborer and supervisor. He recalled responding to the report of a hole in the road on Fore Street, at the top of Munjoy Hill near where it turns into the Eastern Promenade.

“It was a small hole, but when we looked we could tell there was a significant void under the street,” Earley said. They broke the hole a little to get a better look and discovered an old brick sewer had caved in and over time, gutted the sand and dirt from under the street. The water and gas line were completely exposed and suspended in air. The only thing holding the street up, Earley said, were old cobblestones.

“You could have fit a couple of cars down there,” he said. “Meanwhile, buses are driving over it.”

Earley said he is looking forward to taking the summer off, although he is not one for sitting around and will probably take on another job. He is considering driving a school bus so he’ll always have summers off.

This summer, he and his wife, Kathi, may head to the Outer Banks. They met a decade or so ago at the office, where she is the city’s engineering manager.

“She designs them and I build them,” he joked. Their relationship and marriage was a first among public works employees, and did not go unnoticed.

“It raised some eyebrows,” Earley said. They have been married nine years, and live in Falmouth.

Bobinsky said that Earley’s departure will leave a void, because of his historical knowledge of the department and his management skills. The city plans to begin looking for a replacement this summer.

“He’s a great confidante, an individual I can bounce ideas off of,” Bobinsky said. “He’ll be missed.”

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net

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