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Building legacies

Building legacies

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    Rick Merson has worked with Needham, Mass., for 35 years. Photo: Town of Needham, Department of Public Works

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    Mickey Sullivan started his career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is now regional vice president with Gresham, Smith & Partners. Photo: Gresham, Smith & Partners

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    Doug Wesselschmidt is city engineer in Shawnee, Kan., where he has worked for the past 20 years. Photo: City of Shawnee

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    Brian Usher is public works director of rapidly growing Zion, Ill., where more than 600 homes are projected to be built over the next three years. Photo: City of Zion

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    Mitch Zamojc is commissioner of public works in the expanding Region of Peel, Ontario. The region plans to divert 70% of waste away from landfills by 2016. Photo: Region of Peel

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    Orange County public works director Bill Baxter, left, accepts his Top Ten award from APWA president-elect Bob Freudenthal. Photo: Orange County Public Works

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    Sacramento County, Calif., Municipal Services Agency administrator Cheryl Creson stands near one of the large pipeline jobs underway for the Sacramento Regional Sanitation District. Photo: Chris Andis

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    Piano public works director Jimmy Foster has brought lessons culled in his travels to 55 different countries back to his home city. Photo: Deborah Stone

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    Leslie Bland, director of public works for the city of Fenton, Mich., installed a capital improvement plan to upgrade his town's roads. Photo:APWA Reporter

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    Las Vegas public works director Richard Goecke has seen exponential growth in his 20-year tenure. Photo:APWA Reporter

Rick Merson: Director of public works Town of Needham, Mass.

Needham, Mass., is redesigning the town business district to make it more pedestrian-friendly and safe. The roads will be narrowed to accommodate crosswalks and sidewalks and the town itself will be beautified. Ironically, when Rick Merson started 35 years ago, the town was expanding the roads to make it mote car-friendly. “Now it's reversing,” he said.

Merson has been with the department of public works for 35 years. He started his public works quest at Boston's Northeastern University, which specialized in cooperative education. Students would go to school while working, preferably in their field. Merson's first co-op assignment was at the Needham Department of Public Works in engineering.

Merson feels one of his best skills is keeping people motivated and directed. “I'm behind the scenes,” he said. “I just try to provide the means and the methods.”

Partway through college, Merson took a full-time job with Needham and completed his education taking night classes, which he feels were more beneficial than day classes. Although night classes had the same topics and professors as a day class, the students were “people who wanted to be there,” he said. “The professors taught people who wanted to learn.” Through this, Merson felt he got a more complete and meaningful education.

Merson also is active in the community. He is a member of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Massachusetts Clean Water Council, Boy Scouts of America, Rotary Club of Needham, and Needham Local Emergency Planning Committee.

For everyday dealings with colleagues or the public, Merson recommends acting with respect and dignity. “That gets you on a higher plane to begin with,” he said. When a problem arises, he advises empathizing with others. “This is a real person with real problems and real issues,” he said. “It may not be big to you at that moment, but it is big to them.”

J. Michael Sullivan, P.E.: Regional Vice President Gresham, Smith & Partners Nashville, Tenn.

In a world where “Ready, aim, fire” has become “Ready, fire, aim,” Mickey Sullivan directs his career in terms of aiming before firing. “Some people start firing before they get their aim down,” he said. “We try to make sure our aim is down before we squeeze the trigger. Make sure to have all the facts before you try to solve the problem and always start with the end in mind. Know where you're going before you get started.”

Sullivan started his public works career after college when lie joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he worked on several large projects. One was the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, which parallels the Mississippi River from Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico. The waterway allows for a shorter route for barge traffic to move on the river system. “It was one of those things that private industry could not pay for themselves,” said Sullivan. “It would take the government to come in and do something like that.” Another large project was building Big South Fork, a 125, 000-acre national park in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.

After 15 years with the Corps and seven with Nashville's public works department, Sullivan took a job with Gresham, Smith & Partners, where he has been for the past 10 years. Sullivan's biggest current project is a brownfield project in downtown Nashville, where an old hospital site is being converted to mixed-use residential, retail, and office space. The city-owned site contains an abandoned hospital, an old rock quarry, and historic trolley barns that have served as Nashville's consolidated motor pool for decades. “We are rebuilding 40 acres of downtown Nashville, which is pretty exciting,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan served as the APWA president, Tennessee chapter, in 2004. Highlights included getting the state DOT to join APWA and getting the governor to declare an American Public Works Week in May.

“There's something special [about working in public works],” said Sullivan. “If there's anything I miss since I left government it's that firsthand, up-close, personal involvement with projects where you feel like you're making a difference for people's quality of life.”