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Leaving the community a little better: Flandrich retires after 43 years in public works

After more than four decades in the supervisor role in both the St. Paul Park and Newport public works departments, Lee Flandrich is hanging up is reflective vest. Providing services to the community is what he said made him love his job. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

For the last 43 years, Lee Flandrich’s day often began before the sun rose and ended long after it had set.

That just comes with the territory when you work in the public service industry, the retiring St. Paul Park Public Works supervisor said recently. The needs of the citizens, Flandrich added, dictated his schedule. From fixing broken water mains in the dead of winter and mowing ball fields in the summer to repaving and plowing the roads more times than he could count, Flandrich has been a key component to the smooth running of city services in St. Paul Park and Newport.

After more than four decades of service, Flandrich is retiring and will hang up his reflective safety vest Oct. 31.

Formative years

It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 1970 when Flandrich, a 22-year-old soon-to-be-father, saw an advertisement in the Newport Village newspaper; the city’s Public Works Department needed a maintenance worker. As a cabinet maker from West St. Paul, Flandrich admitted that, at the time, he didn’t even know where Newport was. However, he applied and, to his surprise, was hired.

“There hasn’t been a day that I did not like my job, except for my first day at Newport,” he said. “I didn’t know anything. That was an ego buster.”

Recovering from the mental bruise, Flandrich quickly learned the ropes of the Public Works Department working alongside supervisor Tom Cedar, a mentor Flandrich said taught him much of what he still relies on today.

“I was looking for a job that I could really use my hands and work outside,” he said. “I learned an awful lot from Tom and I could never understood why he took a chance and hired me.”

With a starting pay of $3.75, a salary Flandrich said was big money then, he dedicated his life to the service of the community. Four years later, Cedar handed over the supervisor title to Flandrich, a position he held for 23 years before accepting the same position with St. Paul Park.

Committed to the job

It wasn’t uncommon for Nancy Flandrich to call her husband’s cellphone and remind him to come home after work. She said he felt his job was never done.

“People like him don’t exist anymore,” his son, Tony Flandrich, said. “He has this work ethic that you don’t go home until it’s all done.”

Driving through town to check each street light or surveying Heritage Park for unmowed grass, Flandrich said he was on constant watch. But when that cellphone rang, he was there.

“Public service dictates and you accept that responsibility,” he said.

Reminiscing about the more than four decades in public service, Flandrich recalled a water main break inside the Broadway Avenue water tower. The 16-inch piping snapped under the pressure of cold air, spewing thousands of gallons of water onto the nearby railroad tracks.

“The broken main drained the tower in 20 minutes,” Flandrich said. “The nearby trailers saw some damage but they were lucky because it all spilled onto the tracks. We were able to shut off the valves and get the tower back into service the same day.

“If you’re quick enough and have the right guys on the job, you can get it done.”

Flandrich recalled the winter of 1996 as the year he perfected his snowplowing skills.

“The snow was just relentless,” he said. “I mean we were out plowing every single day.”

Five years earlier, while still working for Newport, Flandrich said he dealt with a “snow event” that he said set the precedent for years to come. On Halloween, a dusting of snow was forecast, but what came instead was a deluge of heavy, wet snow and forced the unprepared Public Works Department to ready the trucks in an hour.

“It was a benchmark snow event that dropped 17 inches in 24 hours,” he said. “It started at 4 a.m. and by the following morning the city was covered. And it didn’t stop for 48 hours.”

For a community that saw roughly 45 inches in an entire season, the Halloween blizzard had Flandrich and his team of snowplows working around the clock.

“It wasn’t really cold out so the snow was wet and heavy and it was hell on the roads,” he said. “We were ripping up blacktop and hitting curbs just to get it cleared.”

Throughout the years, the department acquired bigger and stronger equipment capable of handling massive and sudden snow events.

“Winters have been wimpy since,” Flandrich said.

During his time with St. Paul Park, Flandrich and longtime City Administrator Barry Sittlow became close friends. So when the idea arose to build a park dedicated to the Sittlow name, Flandrich jumped at the chance.

Located on west Third Street in an area that was once overtaken with buckthorn, rotting trees and overgrown weeds, Flandrich and his crew worked for nearly three years to renovate and construct the parkland.

“I made sure we spent the time to remove the buckthorn and trees and trash to make it a park that we could be proud of,” he said. “It took a good while but I wanted it to be done right.”

Firefighter Flandrich

Throughout his 43 years in the Public Works role, Flandrich did some odd jobs around the community, including a brief stint with the Newport Fire Department. As a volunteer firefighter for two years, he saw some of the biggest fires the town had ever seen, including the Holiday tank farm explosion.

A tanker was filling up with gasoline when the fumes from a nearby gas leak sparked a fire inside the tanker truck. More than 100 firefighters responded, Flandrich remembered. Some came from as far west as Bloomington.

“We battled that fire for about 24 hours,” he said. “It was a scary scene. Two guys were guided in by the water hoses to shut off the valve. But the fire rolling out of that tanker and the black smoke that engulfed everything just made it a spooky sight.”

While he only spent two years on the department, he assisted on fires at the refinery and the fire that demolished the Newport police chief’s home on Super Bowl Sunday.

“After all that, I thought I would just stick with public works,” he joked. “But I loved doing it because it was civic-minded and it was helping my community.”

‘People like him don’t exist anymore’

Tony Flandrich recently joked that his dad is a dinosaur.
“I call him that because people like him don’t exist anymore,” he said. “The passion he has for his job, I don’t think people realize what a benefit they had in my dad.”

Recently, Flandrich was assisting crews chlorine coat and refill the Broadway Avenue water tower after it was refurbished. He said he was on the job until 1 a.m. making sure the water pressure was just right and that the tank was put back on line.

Staying after hours, coming in early and perusing the town for discrepancies, he said, will be the most difficult to let go of once he retires.

“It’s a mind game that I’m going to have to tell myself that my job here is done and I’m moving onto a different job,” he said, alluding to his wife’s ‘Honey-Do’ list. “But this was a job that took a lot of time but it was a job that I wanted to do right. When that phone rings, your life stops and you go to where you’re needed. I just hope I was able to leave the communities a little better than when I first came.”

Accepting the responsibility that comes with a job in public service, Tony Flandrich, who works for the Cottage Grove Public Works Department, said his father was proud to do a job that allows a city to work.

“Anyone can do a job but his heart was really in his work,” he said. “For those 43 years, it never got old for him. He always put people first. And nowadays, that’s rare.”

If you go

A retirement party for Lee Flandrich is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 28 beginning at 3:30 p.m. at the St. Paul Park City Hall. A short presentation will be given at 4:30 p.m.