• Thousands of public works employees in municipalities across the nation set the stage so millions could kick off the holidays with a public celebration.

    Credit: Radekdrewek | Dreamstime.com

    Thousands of public works employees in municipalities across the nation set the stage so millions could kick off the holidays with a public celebration.

I had occasion recently to explain (or try to) the role of public works. I said the average person doesn’t know or care about infrastructure until something goes wrong, at which point the men and women who have dedicated themselves to the care and feeding of a community’s largest investment are considered either lazy government employees or heroes.

The first attitude reflects cynicism toward government in general. Taxpayers don’t think public works does anything because so much goes right so much of the time. That makes you and your team victims of your own competence. Nothing to be done about that except continue quietly and effectively going about your business day after day. (Luckily, people who choose this line of work don’t have huge ego needs.)

There are so many more examples of public works employee as hero that you wonder how people cling so tightly to the first. (Talk about cognitive dissonance.) Almost everyone I know knows someone affiliated with public works, and all consider their friends and acquaintances to be good people. Their kids go to school together; their families worship together; we see them around town picking up garbage, stringing up holiday lights, driving a snowplow or street sweeper — basically doing for the community as a whole all the un-fun things we do to keep our homes habitable. But much more cheerfully (at least in my case).

I’m adding “survivors” to the list. Too many public works employees and their families have lost their homes, their possessions, even loved ones to natural and man-made disasters. Despite their personal catastrophes, these men and women work as hard on restoring their community as they do on restoring their lives. Their resilience allows the rest of us pansies to concentrate solely on the latter.

As a final rebuttal to the public-employee perception, there’s “inventor.” Our four cover subjects used the tools, equipment, and material on hand and their intimate knowledge of the community’s pain points to make life better. No one asked or told them to; they did it because they’re like anyone else: good people who just want to do a good job. And because they can.

Happy holidays.