The end of the road - Peninsula DOT superintendent steps down to seek other highways

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2001

George Church may not be a household name, but odds are you rely on his handiwork every day you are on the Kenai Peninsula.

For the past 30 years --10 of them on the Kenai Peninsula --Church has supervised the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities maintenance crews for the peninsula and Kodiak. He is responsible for state roads, air strips and docks. He oversees the snow plowing, ice sanding, pothole patching and sign installations.

"Whatever we do kind of helps the community. It affects a lot of people," he said.

"DOT makes a difference. And that is kind of fun to work for."

But at the end of next month Church will retire. He and his wife plan to move to Colorado.

"It's a big year for us," he said.

"I've got two boys leaving home, and I'm leaving the job I've had 30 years and the place I was born and raised."

His boss is Chris Kepler, a former peninsula superintendent who now works as the state's central region maintenance and operations chief. He has worked with Church for about 20 years.

"We hate to see him go. He has been down there long enough he has a good relationship with the public and legislators," he said.

"George has done a very good job for us."

HEAD:Peninsula DOT superintendent steps down to seek other highways

CREDIT:Photo by M. Scott Moon

CAPTION:George Church is retiring from the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. "The state's been good to me," he said.


Shana Loshbaugh

HEAD:The end of the road

Better bit by bit

Road repair, like housework, is never done. But Church said the peninsula's highways are better than ever.

Somewhere, some road is always a mess, he said.

When he became the area superintendent, he found out people were calling their legislators to complain about bad roads. One of the first things he did was contact the peninsula senators and representatives, giving them his number and asking that anyone with complaints be referred to him.

There was plenty to complain about. During his first winter on the job, he recalled, the potholes were so bad on the Sterling Highway coming into Soldotna that they caused rollovers.

Church still takes care of the complaint calls himself.

He said an occasional person still suffers a busted axle or other upsetting damage due to road conditions. Most callers are reasonable folks, but he has little sympathy for the few who claim the roads are the worst they've ever seen.

"We have to tell them they have a short memory," he said.

Kepler said Church is so good at handling those calls that people in his jurisdiction seldom call the Anchorage office anymore.

Church estimated he spends most of his work hours on the phone or answering e-mails.

However, the rest of his time he spends out of the office, cruising the peninsula to check out problem spots and talk to crews in the field.

"I can pretty much do what I want to," he said. "They trust me to get the job done."

On June 7, Church spent five hours on the road, driving to the southern peninsula.

"One of the fun things about the job is you get to meet a lot of people in different locations. We've got some very interesting people in Alaska," he said as he drove.

At Homer, he met up with Mike Morawitz, the Homer Airport director, to discuss new paving on the airport apron and construction of a sand shed. The two men have worked together for years.

"Guys like him just keep you going," Church said as he drove away.

At Anchor Point, he stopped to talk to the crack-sealing crew, before heading out the North Fork Road to look at a problem culvert.

At Ninilchik, he checked the dock by the river mouth. DOT and the Army Corps of Engineers coordinate in the area, working to keep the beach and its adjacent road from washing out.

DOT still cares for two Kenai Peninsula docks, the other being at Jakalof Bay near Seldovia. The state plans to turn all the docks over to local municipalities, but the Kenai Peninsula Borough is cool to the prospect of taking over the two sites, he said.

Church's responsibilities include the state-run airports at Homer and Kodiak, 15 noncertified airstrips, 1,500 lane-miles of road, nine maintenance stations, a $7.5-million annual budget and about 60 employees.

Keeping the way clear

Church and his maintenance crews sometimes have hair-raising moments, but the overall road work safety record is good, he said.

"Actually, there have been very few accidents involving state equipment in my 30 years," he said. "And I know of only one fatality."

The crews often work in the worst possible conditions, he said. They deal with avalanches, blizzards and floods. Sometimes traffic complicates situations.

His advice to motorists is to be careful of snowplows. Because the plows need to clear the center lines, cars need to move over and give them plenty of room.

If someone's car gets buried in the snowdrifts, they should mark it with a flag for the plow to see. After one blizzard near Homer, his people accidentally knocked the tops off buried roadside cars with their side blades.

And then there are the roads themselves.

One of his sander drivers rolled off the North Fork Road east of Anchor Point -- twice.

The floods in Seward in 1995 gave Church and his crews plenty to do.

"It washed out the railroad track. It flushed the whole road into the small boat harbor. It started washing out the airport. So I got to spend the whole weekend over there," he recalled.

Two winters ago, he accompanied one of his drivers to the hospital after a truck hauling two trailers jackknifed on the highway and hit a sander.

When the big avalanches closed roads in the Chugach and Kenai mountains early in 2000, peninsula road maintenance crews were called out to help in the Turnagain Arm area. After a snowslide knocked an Anchorage plow driver off the highway and killed him, everyone took the situation very seriously. Plow drivers worked on the roads only in daylight, with escorts and spotters.

"We were being as careful as we possibly could," Church said.

He got stranded with the Silvertip crew near the Hope cutoff and had trouble reaching his family because the phones were out and wireless transmissions patchy in the valleys.

The experiences that spooked him most, however, were earlier in his career in the city.

"I had someone shoot at one of my guys one time in Anchorage," he said.

Working alone at night could be especially creepy.

"I had a drunk walking down the middle of the road one time in Eagle River. It was about two in the morning. I don't know how I missed him. I was so scared," he said.

Working up

through the ranks

Church was born in Palmer, where his grandparents settled in the 1930s and many of his relatives still live. When he was a boy, his father, who worked for the Alaska Railroad, moved the family into a house between Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson. When he was in ninth grade, the family moved into Anchorage proper. He graduated from East High School.

"I went to work for the state the day after I graduated," he said.

His best friends' father was a DOT foreman and offered him a summer job as a flagger. He worked summers for the road crews while attending college. He quit school to join DOT full time.

"I decided I didn't want to work behind a desk all my life," he said.

He began a lifetime of learning road skills and working up the ladder at the department. He cut grass, picked up trash and ran street sweeper brooms. When he mastered one skill or piece of equipment, co-workers taught him more. When promotion possibilities came open, he was qualified.

"They just kept me on. I worked my way up through the operator classes."

Church passed milestones outside of work, as well.

He met a young visitor from California named Debbie and was so impressed with her kindheartedness he followed up by visiting her in San Diego. They have been married for 23 years and have three children -- Brandon, 21, Brady, 18, and Lindsey, 16.

"She was just a wonderful person," he said. "I kind of fell for her."

As the years rolled along, Church continued working for DOT in Anchorage and climbing through the ranks. He worked on snowplows, graders and bladers and became a foreman and supervisor.

"I spent a lot of time on the asphalt crew," he said. "We did crack sealing."

In 1990, the superintendent on the Kenai Peninsula was promoted. Church was asked to fill the vacancy.

"I guess no one else wanted it," he said.

A new home

Three years ago Church and his Soldotna staff moved out of the 40-year-old maintenance shop in downtown Soldotna and into new digs south of town next to the borough landfill.

The state-of-the-art complex covers 15 acres. It has plenty of room for outside storage, including separate areas for specialized functions, a floored containment area for potential pollutants, a shed for unused traffic lights and signs, and a cavernous barn for sand.

At the old facility, sand was stored outside. To prevent its freezing in winter, salt was mixed in, which caused problems with runoff. Now the sand stays dry, and the crews have cut their salt use, saving money, time and the environment.

The main building has a heated floor and overhead sprinklers. The large bays allow crews to park or work on vehicles at temperatures that save fuel and reduce stress on employees and machines. Customized bays can handle welding, washing and even vehicles on Caterpillar treads. The facility has two overhead cranes and a lift that can raise 45,000 pounds.

The maintenance is critical.

The trend is toward using fewer, but more versatile machines. Instead of buying more expensive maintenance vehicles, the state has invested in multipurpose rigs accessorized with removable attachments. The change saves money, but the drawback is that if a machine breaks down, the crew cannot use multiple pieces of equipment.

The other end of the building contains the offices.

The parts person, electrician and others have workshops attached directly to their offices. In contrast, the airy hallways are hung with handsome pictures of Alaska obtained through the state's 1 percent for art program.

Church has the corner office.

The new facility has a few bugs, but his staff was able to work with designers to get what they needed, he said.

"When you think what we moved out of, it's very hard to complain about anything.

"We're excited. I think we have the best camp in the state."

People are even more important than equipment.

Church praised some peninsula legislators he has worked with over the years for their helpfulness and understanding. He particularly noted Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, for being supportive and former office-holders Mike Navarre, Suzanne Little, Judy Salo and Gail Phillips.

Church was quick to credit his staff for improvements in state road maintenance, but warned that many senior personnel are due to follow him into retirement soon.

"We are going to have a mass change in the state in the next three, four years," he said.

"When you have good foremen, when you have good office help, it makes your job a whole lot easier. They just don't get the credit they deserve."

He focuses on the public, too.

"It's nice when you can help people," he said. "We are all working toward better roads and conditions for everyone."

Upgrades get results

The other highlight during Church's decade on the peninsula has been the paving of main routes and the upgrades of gravel roads. Roadway engineering is growing more adept at solving problems, he said.

Kepler said Church has been a key player in the paving of the peninsula.

A major factor is the influx of federal road-building dollars in recent years, allowing the state to progress through its backlog of projects. The results make for a smoother ride for maintenance crews as well as the car-driving public.

"We got to pave places like Funny River Road that was a headache every time it rained. And when it didn't rain, it was dusty," Church said.

"The roads are in good enough shape that we can actually do some road maintenance and do some good.

"The technology is so much better now."

Fabric underlays have changed the drainage on unpaved roads and boggy areas, reducing the problems of breakup quagmires.

"It relieves our crews from having to be out blading," he said.

Upgrades to previously paved roads also save maintenance costs by reducing time-consuming pothole patching. The department is getting federal money to seal cracks, which keeps ice from breaking pavement and prolongs the usable life of existing blacktop.

Despite the progress, nagging problems persist.

Church named the dip in the Sterling Highway by Big Johns between Sterling and Soldotna as one thorn in DOT's side.

"There is a big vein of peat there," he said.

"At least we don't have the permafrost they have up north, which is a real problem," he said.

"There is always going to be something. But the projects are getting better. I think we've made great strides in the last five, 10 years."

Preparing to hit the road

Over the past year, Church and his family decided to slow the pace.

They sold their house on the Kenai River.

"We were doing a bed and breakfast. It got to be too much work," he said. "It just made the summers too busy."

For the first time in 30 years, his work at DOT seemed more repetitive. He felt it was time to make a change, he said.

So he submitted his retirement.

He and Debbie decided to put their new place on the market rather than keep it as a retirement home. They plan to spend winters in Grand Junction, Colo., where she has relatives, but still spend at least part of their summers in Alaska.

"It's kind of exciting to retire at age 50," he said. "Or you can think you aren't worth anything: They are going to pay you not to come in."

Church's colleagues appreciate his self-deprecating humor, but they disagree with his modest opinions of himself.

Morawitz praised his candor and positive, can-do attitude, calling Church the best boss he's ever had.

"He's taught me a lot over the years. ... He is excellent."

Lynn Friendshuh, who has worked for seven years as Church's administrative assistant, said, "I wish he would stay. He is an absolutely wonderful boss.

"He is a really good people person."

Friendshuh described Church as modest, fair and a straight talker.

"He won't lie to anyone. He says it like it is," she said.

"He really cares about the motoring public."

Church readily admits he will miss the work. But only for a little while, and he leaves with a sense of accomplishment, he said.

"I'm going to miss a lot of this stuff," he said. "The state has been really good to me. I've enjoyed my job.

"The main thing is it's a better place when I'm leaving than when I came. It's not all my fault, or course, but it is better. I think I did the best I could. You can't ask for any more than that."

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