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Highway Superintendent Gary Thorington and the Town of Windham

Tue March 01, 2022 - National Edition
Lori Lovely – PROFILE CORRESPONDENT


The Windham crew completed “re-armoring” of a stream bank to repair flood damage on Big Hollow Road. A 2000 Oshkosh MPT is used as a backup for the main fleet. Gary drove this truck from 2000 to 2016 for many of his workdays prior to becoming highway superintendent. The town of Windham’s highway garage is located on County Route 21. The 1,500-ton capacity sand/salt storage is located directly behind highway garage on County Route 21 in Windham. The town of Windham highway department’s 2000 Oshkosh MPT. Gary goes charter fishing for salmon at Lake Ontario in Pulaski, N.Y. One year when Gary and his family noticed a seemingly lost newborn calf, they put her in the barn. Later, they discovered that her mother had died shortly after giving birth. The department performs cold mix paving on Pheasant Lane. Foreman Troy Aplin and Scott Schoonmaker perform culvert replacement on Galway Road in Windham. Gary Thorington (R) and Town of Inlet Highway Superintendent Shawn Hansen meet up in Inlet after a Hamilton County Association Meeting for NYSAOTSOH. Gary says, “Shawn is like a brother to me. We met in Ithaca at highway school. Huge bonds are made through our local and state associations.” Dog Ice Rescue in Windham. (L-R): Greene County Deputy Jeff Hoessle, Windham PD Officer Cody Rogers and Gary Thorington after they rescued Rolo, a Labrador Retriever that had fallen through melting ice on Batavia Kill while walking with his owners and was stuck in two to three feet of water. Gary tries to teach the calf he raised to drink from a bottle at one-day old. A single-axle plow gets a winch out with a “Big Hook” on Jennie Notch Road in winter 2020.
Crews “re-armor” a stream bank to repair flood damage. The town of Windham’s primary snow fleet consists of four trucks.

Whatever successes Gary Thorington has achieved as the highway superintendent of the town of Windham, he attributes to the legacy of the nine highway superintendents who served before him.

He also cites a long list of others, starting with the dedicated highway employees he oversees, his parents and his mentor — Bernie "Big Cheese" Meyer, a retired highway superintendent from Columbia County, who first nominated Gary to fill a seat on the state executive committee of the New York State Association of Towns Superintendents of Highways.

"Without friends and family, there would be no success," said Gary, the tenth highway superintendent. Gary followed in his father David's footsteps, a retired highway worker in the town of Roxbury, N.Y., and his mother, Katherine, who taught him the importance of being on time.

Punctuality resides in him.

"Ten minutes early is OK," he said. "One minute late is not. In our business, you have to be on time. Everyone is counting on us. School buses need the roads cleared. People have to get to work."

Gary puts to use other lessons learned from experience and those who influenced him, as well. For example, not only has he generated a "troubled culvert" list of culverts that need routine cleaning of leaves, sticks and debris, but the diligent superintendent is currently in the process of building a beaver cage for one culvert in a swampy area, modeled on the Beaver Pipe Cage, a reinforced, detachable barrier that prevents beavers from plugging culverts with debris while allowing for good water flow and easier culvert maintenance. The winning design was created by Pat Steger, highway superintendent, and the town of Niles highway department, in conjunction with the Cornell Local Roads Program.

Groomed for the Job

Elected in 2016, Gary has performed "every job a highway worker could possibly do — from weed eating to heavy machinery."

He has served as MEO of the Windham highway department for 23 years … seven of them as deputy highway superintendent under his predecessor, who is now the town of Windham supervisor. As the ninth highway superintendent, Thomas Hoyt implemented an equipment replacement program during his 17-year tenure that Gary still uses.

His oldest piece of equipment is a 1988 GMC dump truck; his newest, a 2022 John Deere 544P high-lift loader. In between, they have two other dump trucks, five plows, ranging in age from 20 to two years, a 2018 John Deere backhoe, a 2018 Sakai roller, two F250 pickups and assorted tractors and mowing equipment, including a 2008 John Deere shoulder mower.

He keeps them all in good running order.

"I take great pride in our preventive maintenance program at the Windham highway department, from daily pre-trips and inspections to consistently greasing and ‘getting under the equipment' to look for potential problems," said the former groundskeeper at Windham Country Club with no hint of boasting.

Good communication with the operators helps keep everything in shape.

"We don't allow a unit to stack up little problems," Gary said. "That only allows for big problems."

It's No Problem

Problems for the tenth highway superintendent have been few and far between.

"I'm one of the luckiest superintendents," he said. "I have a very supportive town board, a spacious modern highway garage, nice equipment and a road system that is in good shape."

He credits excellent town leadership and a good tax base that provides enough money to do things. His annual operating budget is $891,141.19, with CHIPS money accounting for $159,388.19.

The main garage is approximately 10,500 sq. ft. Built in 2014, it features seven bays with 16 x 16 doors and radiant heat with quick recovery Modine heaters. There are also two pole barns with 10 more bays and a large sand and salt storage facility built in 1997 that holds about 1,500 tons of a salt-sand mixture.

Having once worked as a winter snow groomer at Windham Mountain, Gary knows something about de-icing, and it's one program he hopes to improve upon during his term in office.

"We've used similar technology for 50 years," he said.

He considered the one part salt to 12 parts sand mixture not aggressive enough, so he altered the ratio to one part salt, seven parts sand for a "hotter fix" without spending any more money.

However, to reach his desired, more aggressive ratio of 1:3, he needs additional funds. He recently made the town board aware of his aim and hopes they'll approve additional money for the next fiscal year.

"This would make us more productive, more efficient and provide a better finished product for our residents and visitors," he said.

But, he added, that's his "only big issue." Gary knows the board understands his department's needs.

Taking the Good With the Bad

One problem Gary experienced was delivered on Aug. 28, 2011, by Hurricane Irene. Along its path, the deadly storm caused an estimated $13.5 billion in damages and was responsible for 49 deaths, making Hurricane Irene one of the most expensive hurricanes recorded.

Closer to home for Gary, the storm dumped more than 10 inches of rain into nearby Batavia Kill Creek in just a couple of hours, resulting in devastating flooding. Windham experienced "severe road closures" for days, he recalled.

"It was four days until the last road was passable," he said.

Roads were washed out. "The main street was wiped out: sewer, utility poles, trees ..."

Windham relied on local radio station WRIP 97.9 to notify residents and visitors informed of highway projects and emergencies, but even their voice was jeopardized by Irene.

"When tragedy strikes in a small town, everyone pulls together to rebuild," Gary said. "But with this, everyone was devastated."

For a compassionate man, it was difficult for him to have to drive by residents in need because he had to get the roads open first to allow access for first responders.

"We'd had a seven-foot blizzard a year or so before," he said. "I thought I saw the worst I'd see in my career with that, but then Irene hit."

Gary's empathy was once again on display during the day he considers his best on the job. On Jan. 24, 2019, he heard the fire engine's siren and decided to investigate. Rolo, a Labrador Retriever, had fallen through melting ice on Batavia Kill while walking with his owners and was stuck in two to three feet of water.

"His back feet were in the stream," Gary said. "His front feet were on the ice."

With the water up to his neck, Rolo was trying to pull himself out, but he wasn't getting anywhere but tired.

A Greene County Sheriff's canine deputy and a Windham police officer were on the scene, but they quickly realized the ice was too treacherous for anyone to attempt walking out to rescue the dog. Instead, they innovated by tying the canine officer's 25-foot dog leash around his waist as a sort of safety line.

"We formed a human chain with our belts," Gary said.

The officer was then able to crawl out on the ice and pull Rolo out of the water to safety.

"It was so emotional," said Gary, understanding that the woman considered her dog much like her own child. "To save a life is incredible," he said.

Growing Up in Greene County

Gary was born in Grand Gorge, which is technically in Delaware County, about 22 minutes away from Windham, where he's lived for the past 38 years.

Nicknamed "The Gem of the Catskills," Windham is one of the oldest small towns in the area. Established in 1798, it was originally in Ulster County until Greene County was created in 1800. Windham and six other towns were formed out of "Old Windham." Two other towns were fashioned out of the southern part of Windham in 1813 with another sliced off the northwest corner in 1833 and finally, another town used parts of Windham and Prattsville to form in 1849.

What's left of Windham has a population of 1,700 today. It features three hamlets and lies partially within the Catskill State Park. Its location in the Catskill Mountains earned Windham a second nickname: Land in the Sky.

That nickname is never more relevant than at Windham Mountain Resort, a ski resort opened in 1960 that features 54 trails, 12 lifts and 285 skiable acres. Situated in the northern part of the Catskills, about three hours north of New York City, its highest peak is at 3,100 feet.

The resort offers ski trails, terrain parks and a mountain bike park. The Windham Path is a 1.5-mile trail off Route 23 that provides public access to the Batavia Kill stream. Walkers and bicyclists can enjoy views of the Catskills as they follow the meandering path through fields and woodlands.

For those who prefer to drive, the Five State Lookout along Route 23 offers a scenic view of the Hudson River Valley and five states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. If the scenery looks familiar, Windham's Catskill Mountain Country Store on Route 23 was used as a diner in the 2018 Netflix original series Daredevil.

For Gary, the majestic scenery of the Catskills is the backdrop for his hobbies of fishing and bow hunting. Although he doesn't have a lot of time for recreation because being highway superintendent "is not just a full-time job," the generous man said that "one of the coolest things" he's ever done is to mentor youth hunters. "

It's rewarding," he said with a laugh as he explained how he tries to keep them awake while they hike up the mountain at 3:30 a.m. in search of turkeys.

It's not exactly the closest the superintendent has come to having children. Living at Hickory Hill Farms, he helps out with the 25 White-faced Herefords residing there. One year when he and his family noticed a seemingly lost newborn calf, they put her in the barn. Later, they discovered that her mother had died shortly after giving birth.

Gary visited a neighboring dairy farm, where he obtained "real milk" and a feeding tube for the orphaned calf. She quickly learned to nurse from a bottle and it wasn't long before she imprinted on Gary. Every time she sees him, the little cow comes for ear scratches and to chew on his pantlegs. It became a running joke for his friends to call her his daughter.

Teamwork

The compassion Gary shows animals in need matches the respect he gives his crew, some of whom he has worked with for 20 years.

"I try to treat every employee how I'd like to be treated," he said.

His laid-back style of management means he expects everyone to do their job. "We all have a job to do. People count on us."

Working 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. four days a week in the summer and 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week in the winter, his crew consists of six full-time employees and two part-time employees (with two open positions):

  • Troy Aplin, foreman;
  • Devin Drum;
  • Michael Mattice;
  • Edwin Ohl III;
  • Scott Schoonmaker;
  • John "Jack" MacDonald; and
  • Janine Soule

Together, they are responsible for 74 lane miles, only 1 percent of which are gravel. Divided into four plow routes, it takes three hours to clear each route. Other duties include maintaining five cemeteries, two parks and 1-1/2 miles of The Windham Path.

The highway department occasionally assists other departments within the county.

"We support the water and sewer departments as needed," Gary said.

It comes naturally since the water department and the highway department used to be part of the same department — until Windham's growth necessitated categorizing the work in an economical effort. The main assistance his department now provides to the water department is digging for pipe repairs, although they also may help with leak detection.

Although the town of Windham owns the wastewater treatment plant, operations are contracted out to Cedarwood. Gary summed it up: "They maintain it."

Believing that the key to getting things done is relying on the talent of his crew, Gary humbly acknowledges that "it's not a one-man show."

He shines a light on each member of his staff for their unique abilities.

"Recently, with the help of our part-time clerk, we have converted from ‘old-school paper files' to all-electronic filing."

Two-way radios are in all the equipment and they use cellular where they can get a signal, but computers have been the key for communicating and attending meetings for the past two years. Gary uses computers for everyday logs, tracking storms during weather events and keeping records for the entire department.

One More Term

Gary's current four-year term expires in 2024. He stepped into the position when a vacancy opened up after the previous superintendent moved on, and he has run unopposed in each general election since then.

Despite a hurricane, a blizzard and a water rescue, he said he wants to run again.

"I like doing the job, although Mother Nature and I will never be best friends," he joked.

Kidding aside, he does take the job seriously and fully understands how important the work his department does is to everyone they serve. He's so dedicated to his job that in addition to being an NYSAOTSOH executive committee member, he's also vice president of the Greene County Association of Superintendents of Highways.

It's nice to run the show after working in the trenches for 20 years. But, he reflected, "when this highway stuff is done, I will take a hard look at what I want to do."

The farthest west he's been is Nebraska. Whether traveling is in his future isn't certain, but for now he knows that "if highway departments didn't move, nobody would be moving," and Windham Highway Superintendent Number 10 is determined to keep the residents of Windham moving. P

This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.




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