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Highway Superintendent Harry Donahue and the Village of Brockport

Wed September 01, 2021 - National Edition
Mary Yamin-Garone - PROFILE CORRESPONDENT


Labor Foreman Jeff Woodin works on Westwood Drive in the village of Brockport. Laborer Pat Farrell repairs a water main at the DPW.
Village of Brockport highway department laborers, Nick Jackson and John Winkler, clean a catch basin. Laborers Christian Weiss, Dylan Phillips and Bill Newbould do brush pickup in the village. Laborer Bruce Hovey stands with his prized truck #12. Harry Donahue depends on his crew of 13 full-time and 6 part-time employees to serve the town’s 8,366 residents. Seasonal Laborer Carl Lawrenz mows a lawn in the village of Brockport. James Sweeting of Sweeting Enterprises and laborer John Winkler help pave Havenwood Drive in the village of Brockport. As a result of a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), the Brockport highway department constructed sidewalks on State Street. 
Crews mill McCormick Lane in the village of Brockport. The village of Brockport’s highway department functions on a total operating budget of $2,243,306. The department also receives an annual CHIPS allocation of $160,379 that includes monies for Pave New York and Extreme Winter Recovery. Paving Havenwood Drive. Seen here are DPW Working Foreman Keith Marshall and laborer David Armer. Laborers Dan Verace (now superintendent), David Armer and Jeremy Moyer repair a water valve on State Street. Laborers Nick Jackson and John Winkler clean out a catch basin.

As the saying goes, "All good things must come to an end."

That was true for Highway Superintendent Harry Donahue. He hung up his hat for the last time at the end of July after 38 years of service.

Raised one block over from the DPW shop in the village of Brockport, Harry attended Wemoco Trade School after high school.

"I worked at the Central School District while I was in school and then after I graduated for a short time," he said. "I was a cleaner for a while, then part of the grounds crew. I left there to come here to the village. I started out as a laborer at the DPW. Come to think of it, I started seasonal. Then, I went to full-time labor to foreman for a few years. Then, I became highway superintendent. I stayed in that position for 16 years."

Looking back, Harry never dreamed he would be that far up the ladder.

"I thought I'd make it to foreman," he said. "The previous super decided to go to a neighboring municipality. It's an appointed position and civil service competitive. So, I took a civil service test and scored in the top three percent. I wasn't a test taker and I was nervous as hell. There weren't any study manuals for the superintendent of public works, so that made it worse. You get eight hours to complete the test. and I think it took me maybe three and a half. Much of it was knowledge I had acquired being foreman. I never did well on tests, but I did well enough on that one."

Harry never anticipated becoming highway superintendent only because "the gentleman who was here prior to me was my age and I figured we'd retire together. But he decided to leave and I had the opportunity to move up. At that time, the mayor asked me to look seriously at the position. I knew my crew was gunning for me to take the job. I also have a good rapport with the taxpayers and the community, so I thought I'd give it a shot."

Harry's previous jobs and experiences were what prepared him for the top spot.

"I use to work on tractors and things with my dad. He taught me a lot about mechanical work. We did a lot of farming together years ago. Lots of people had gardens around here. We'd drive tractors around the town and village and pull gardens for people. We also did snow removal with motorized tractors."

Wife Robyn recently retired from her hairdressing job of 26 years in April. The couple have three children. Stepdaughter, Kayla, is married to Tyler, a member of the maintenance crew at SUNY Brockport. They have two children, Landyn, 5, and Ryleigh, 3. Daughter Alyssa works for Columbia University and Kyle drives for a local contractor Crupi Gravel Products.

Harry serves as the treasurer for the W.N.Y.U.S.A and a member of the Monroe County Town Superintendents Association and the NYS Association of Town Superintendents of Highways (NYSOTSOH).

In his spare time, you can find him fishing, hunting and enjoying the outdoors.

"I have a camp down in the southern tier in Bath, N.Y., that sits on 46 acres. It's my second home. I try to get there as often as I can. Sometimes my wife comes along. I have a pond that's stocked with fish. The grandkids love that."

Harry's also looking forward to traveling to Tennessee with Robyn.

"We want to see the great Smoky Mountains and there's also lots to see here in New York State. Especially Niagara Falls when the borders are open."

Another reason for Harry's early retirement? COVID-19.

"With all the new policies and procedures. It's nerve wracking and tough to do your job the way you used to," he said.

The Job

The village of Brockport's highway department fits into a single 10,000 sq.-ft. garage. Built in 1969, it houses a water and wood shed and a coverall salt shed that holds roughly 800 tons per season. There are six buildings on site. One is the shop for the water department that houses a truck and other equipment. Harry resides in the main building and oversees the water department, as well. Several of the buildings serve as equipment storage. Some are climate controlled and one is heated.

"Before I took over, we partnered with the Brockport Central School District," he said. "We share that facility. They order and it's delivered here. Then, they load it and use it on the campus."

Harry's also in charge of maintaining the local police station and a three-story court building that houses a museum. There's also a village hall at a separate location and a welcome center along the Erie Canal.

"We do some maintenance of the older buildings. My crew has repaired roofs and shingles and did some renovations to the police station. Back in the 1990s, when I was still a foreman, we did a complete overhaul on the structure and gutted it out. We actually moved our police department out of the basement of another building we were renting. We assembled jail cells and then reassembled them in the new building. We also did the interior renovations and had help with the wiring, duct work and the AC. It took us about a year from start to finish."

As superintendent, Harry is responsible for maintaining the village's 38.81 lane miles of road, all of which are paved. That translates into six plowing routes that take close to three hours to complete, depending on the storm.

Harry depends on his crew of 13 full-time and 6 part-time employees to serve the town's 8,366 residents.

The rest of his department of public works crew includes: labor foreman Jeff Woodin; working foreman Keith Marshall; full-time mechanic/fabricator/diesel mechanic Gerry Bradt; meter reader/laborer Carl Lawrenz; laborers David Armer, Bruce Hovey, Nick Jackson, Bill Newbould, Dylan Phillips, Joe Radak, Dan Verace, Christian Weiss and John Winkler; part-time clerk Carol McNess; and three or four high school/college students during the summer.

The department also maintains the town's seven police vehicles.

Under Harry's watchful eye, the village of Brockport's highway department functions on a total operating budget of $2,243,306. He also receives an annual CHIPS allocation of $160,379 that includes monies for Pave New York and Extreme Winter Recovery.

To carry out its duties, the town uses a well-rounded fleet of equipment that includes:

  • 2008 International Paystar tandem-axle dump truck
  • Four single-axle dump trucks, including a 1994 Ford L-9000, a 1997 International, a 2019 Mack and a 2021 Mack
  • 2017 Kenworth single-axle hook body truck with five different hook boxes
  • Four one-ton dump trucks, including a 1990 F-600, a 2007 F-550, a 2013 International Terrastar and a 2013 F-550
  • Six ¾-ton pickups — various years from 2012 to 2021
  • ¾-ton 2015 F250 meter reader service truck
  • 2003 International 4300 utility body service truck
  • 2014 Freightliner aerial 70-ft. bucket truck
  • 1995 International flush truck shared with neighboring municipality
  • Chevy mechanics truck with utility body
  • 2016 Freightliner Elgin street sweeper
  • 2014 Caterpillar 420F backhoe
  • 2019 John Deere 310SL backhoe
  • 2014 Caterpillar 938M loader
  • 1997 John Deere 644G loader
  • 1991 Case 1085C rubber-tire excavator
  • 2012 Case CX80 track excavator
  • 2016 Caterpillar roller
  • 1969 Galion 10-ton roller
  • 1978 Bombardier sidewalk plow
  • 2020 Bobcat T450 CTL with different attachments
  • 2008 John Deere 4720 tractor with 8-ft. brush hog
  • Tow-behind equipment includes: chipper, stump grinder, leaf machine, two air compressors, 6-ton and 20-ton trailers

How does Harry budget for a new fleet?

"We purchase everything," he said. "However, for larger ticket items, I've been doing municipal lease purchases. We'd do like a four-year lease purchase and pay $35,000 a year. The last new vehicle we bought was about $184,000. I talked to the old supervisor who hired me years ago who said, ‘You can buy a dump truck for roughly $85,000. You can't even buy a cam and chassis for that anymore.'"

When it comes to buying new equipment Harry admitted, "Having a good mechanic sometimes keep things running too good for too long. Right now, one of our loaders is 24 years old. We just budgeted to replace it. I'd also like to replace a street sweeper. It's in the worst condition possible. I'd also like to see our older six-wheel dump trucks replaced. We have a rubber-tire excavator that should be replaced, as well. We don't use it a ton, but it comes in handy for the longer reach."

Technology also has impacted the equipment.

"As far as the computers, we budgeted for one so we can scan diesel engines. We haven't been able to do that. We have a close-knit highway superintendents association locally … always sharing equipment and technology. I've been able to take our equipment to another municipality and have them plug it into their scanner/computer."

During his tenure, Harry oversaw numerous projects that were completed with Community Block Grant funds from Monroe County. There was little cost to the village taxpayers other than labor.

They included:

  • West Avenue — new sidewalk installation
  • West Avenue — 6-in. water main replacement with new 12-in. ductile iron pipe
  • Monroe Avenue — old stone box culvert replacement with new 8-in. ductile iron pipe
  • College Street — 4-in. water main replacement with new 8-in. ductile iron pipe
  • Monroe Avenue — 10-in. sanitary sewer replacement with 10-in. SDR 35 pipe
  • Barry Street — 4-in. water main replacement with 8-in. ductile iron pipe
  • Erie and Perry Streets — stone box culvert replacement with 48-in. SICPP
  • Utica and State Streets — sidewalk replacement and new installation
  • Perry and Clinton Streets — 15-in. CMP storm sewer replacement with new 15-in. SDR 35 pipe

Now it's time for Harry's lightning round … favorite part of the job?

"Dealing with the residents. I have a good rapport with them. It helps being born and raised in a community like this."

Least favorite?

"When you have a bad winter and you keep getting called at 4 a.m. day in and day out. One year, we got called seven days a week for 13 weeks. If it wasn't for snow removal all weekend it was for water main breaks. Not that it was eight-hour days all weekend, but it started to get old."

Most difficult part?

"Dealing with employee issues. Thankfully, we don't have many of those. We have a union. Usually, before things get out of control, my union president, the employee and I can hash things out in the office before it goes any further. I came from a union background. I was a shop steward when I was a laborer, so I know where the guys are coming from. I also know where the board and mayor are coming from. I show some respect for what the guys are thinking."

Most important part?

"Keeping the residents informed, especially if you're working in their neighborhood. Now, we have access to Facebook and a website for the village. My clerk and the village manager have access to them, so I can always reach out to them. A lot of people seem to be doing the social media stuff, so we try to post updates … good or bad."

Most memorable job experience?

"I've done just about everything you can think of as highway superintendent. Not just as superintendent, but also when I was on the crew. Years ago, we had our own water treatment plant at Lake Ontario, which is about 12 miles from here. We were the first water treatment plant in New York State that had a zebra mussels chlorination line installed in an intake line. The zebra mussels came from a foreign country. It was believed that they were brought here by adhering to the underwater portion of ships. The claim is they stick and stick until they get inside our intake pipe and choke it right up, so we couldn't get water flow into our treatment plant. We sprayed chlorine into the intake line so it wouldn't choke up with the mussels. We did that ourselves. Again, I was a laborer. We had to take a boat out on Lake Ontario. Our intake line was 2,500 feet. Another laborer and I dragged the line 5,000 feet out into the lake. Then, a diver dove down and started feeding the line back into our intake to get it back to the plant, so we could spray the chlorine intake line to keep the zebra mussels from going into the line.

"We attempted it one day when there were 10- to 12-foot swales on the lake. It didn't go well, so we aborted the mission. At that point, we only had one boat. The second time we had a calmer lake, several boats and about a dozen people. Surprisingly, I didn't get seasick. We have since sold our water treatment plant to the Monroe County Water Authority. Now, we're wholesale customers and we buy it from them."

What's been Harry's best job experience?

"Dealing with the majority of the residents. I enjoy that and I like seeing a paving project come together. It's a good feeling. A good sense of accomplishment."

What's surprised Harry the most?

"Sometimes, while we're doing excavating we come across an unexpected water or gas lines. We still maintain our own water system here, so we get things documented for any water or sewer lines. For gas, we get a hold of the local gas and electric company and make them aware of what we may have encountered so they can update our maps. Dig Safely New York is typically the one we call ahead of time for locating underground lines."

Has he ever been disappointed?

"I can't think of anything. I've had a good board, good mayors to work for and good employees. Occasionally, I have one that I had to put back in line. There's one in every crowd and sometimes there are two or three, but we get them straightened out."

What would be a bad day?

"The ones that feel like you're stuck in the mud. Nothing seems to go right and nothing gets done."

When Harry leaves, he knows he's leaving the highway department in good hands.

"I've been fortunate. Dan Verache has been on my crew for seven years. He's taken some online courses from Alfred State for construction management and other things related to my job. He asked if he could do an internship with me. The board approved it and he started in January. He's been getting his feet wet. He's sitting across from me as we speak. I'm pretty confident that the board will appoint him as my predecessor. It's been a good transition. I'm looking forward to having him take over the department and keep moving forward with it. The big thing is they're not having an outsider come in."

Any final thoughts?

"I've loved every minute of it!"

About the Village of Brockport

Brockport is a village in the town of Sweden, with two tiny portions in the town of Clarkson in Monroe County.

The population was 8,366 at the 2010 U.S. Census. The name is derived from Heil Brockway, an early settler. It's also home to the city of Rochester, in the western end of Monroe County. The village is north of the junction of New York State Route 19 (north-south) and New York State Route 31 (east-west) on the town of Sweden's northern line.

It calls itself "The Victorian Village on the Erie Canal." The village recently remodeled the its portion of the Erie Canal, providing a bricked walkway, a brand new canal visitor's center and several pieces of art.

Prior to European settlement, the area that makes up modern Brockport was primarily occupied by the Muoio Indian tribe, a part of the Seneca (a member of the Iroquois Confederacy). The Muoio people were sustained in the region mostly by hunting indigenous wildlife, such as deer and the occasional black bear. Shortly after white settlers arrived, most of the Muoio died of disease and the few survivors traveled to Canada.

The village of Brockport was founded in 1823 and later incorporated in 1829. The village grew to importance as a port on the Erie Canal. Brockport was briefly the canal's terminus until the canal's western end was complete.

The Brockport Collegiate Institute was founded in 1841. It was a private "academy," part of the widespread academy movement of the time. In October 1869, Gamma Sigma Fraternity was founded at the Brockport Normal School. Gamma Sigma was the first high school fraternity started in the United States. SUNY Brockport officially called "College at Brockport, State University of New York" is the descendant of that institute. It boasts the Morgan Manning House, a Victorian era home built in 1854, on Main Street (NY 19).

During the American Civil War, the men of Brockport formed all of Company A (100 men) of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment formed in September 1862 at Rochester. Brockport's total population was little more than 2,100 people at the time. Additional volunteers from Brockport helped form Company H of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Company A's heroics helped secure the flank of the 5th Maine and stabilized a bad situation on Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. The 140th New York regiment also saw battle at the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and the Appomattox Courthouse Campaign. The 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment was mustered out on June 3, 1865, near Alexandria, Va.

There has long been a legend that due to a conflict between two of Brockport's founders, there are no intersections on Main Street that meet up squarely. This is not true, since State Street and Erie street line up because they used to be a trolley path that ran all the way to Rochester. Adams Street and Fair street meet up as well, and so do the streets of Brockway Place and South Avenue.

Due to financial difficulties the village was under threat of dissolution and could have become a part of the town of Sweden pending a referendum by the village's residents, but the referendum failed on June 15, 2010. However, there was another dissolution vote on May 24, 2016, which also failed, filed by resident Rhett King on Jan. 25, 2016. Village clerk Leslie Ann Morelli certified the petition and found 339 signatures that are registered voters. There was to be a study; however, it was rejected.

The Erie Canal runs through the village of Brockport, as well as several other area villages and towns. Main Street (Route 19) has many historical buildings and is a tourist attraction. The Erie Canal Boardwalk that runs from Main Street along the canal is a common spot for locals to enjoy a stroll.

(History courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brockport,_New_York) P

This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.




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