In most people’s lives, there are a few dates or numbers that become glued in their minds, withstand the tests of time and don’t diminish from thought even as wrinkles form, mobility decreases and less important memories fade.
Bob Schmit certainly has a few notable dates and figures that come to mind.
Fifty-three and three-fourths years: That's the amount of time he’s served the public with the Nebraska Department of Transportation. The day he married his wife, Betty (Oct. 13, 1962); Oct. 26, 1964 – his first day of grunt work with the department scooping gravel out of an old gravel truck. But lately? July 24, 2018.
On this day, Schmit will officially step away from his position as highway maintenance supervisor with the NDOT, a role which he’s held since 1982. Crew Chief Supervisor Kenny Wellman will serve as interim highway maintenance supervisor in Schmidt’s place until he or another applicant is named the successor.
Schmit and his crews are in charge of road maintenance and repair throughout the state’s First District, encompassing all of Butler County’s – and portion of Saunders County’s – state roads and highways.
On Friday, May 11, Schmit was accompanied by Wellman and approximately 75 other family members and friends in Lincoln for his retirement party. Although he’s officially done July 24, he’s elected to use his surplus of carry-over vacation hours to ride the wave to the finish line.
And not in someplace with palm trees or sand. He’s completely content getting away from the hustle and bustle of work in his own, 320-acre backyard, just 5 ½ miles west of David City. It will give him more time with his wife, children and grandchildren, people he greatly cherishes.
Schmit began his career as a young man farming a plot of land and working as a seasonal laborer at Behlen Manufacturing in Columbus. But factory life wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed, and after stepping away from Behlen, he was told of an available position with the Nebraska Department of Roads.
“She thought that this was something I’d be interested in,” Schmit said of the woman who referred him to the job opening during an interview inside of his David City office. “She knew me and she knew what kind of worker I was.”
The job was difficult, demanding and dirty right from the get-go. His first days were spent scooping bucket after bucket of gravel from the back of an old truck. Shortly after, he walked stretches of Nebraska highway picking up pieces of trash, courtesy of litterbugs who thought the roadway was a suitable trash can replacement.
“And if you forgot your dinner or something they wouldn’t let you go get it neither,” he said. “You were just going to go hungry that day.”
But he kept his head down and worked. In 1966, he started operating a road grader and pretty much every other piece of maintenance equipment he could get his hands on. His work ethic didn’t go unnoticed and in 1982, he became the head of his department.
Wellman started working for Schmit in 2001 as a summer employee and became a full-time staff member in 2009. From the beginning, Schmit had a way of helping workers start their day off on the right foot. Whether a quick conversation, brief words of encouragement or a joke, the actions seemed small but made a big difference to Wellman and his cohorts.
“He just kind of would start the day off right,” Wellman said. “He would kind of try to get everyone in the right mood, and after a long weekend Mondays could be tough and Bob always had some kind of good things to say that would brighten your morning right off the bat. So it wasn’t that you totally forgot what was going on at home, but it made it easier as far as doing the job."
With an inherent risk factor associated with working in the tight confines of traffic, being vigilant and having the right set of mind is of the utmost importance, Wellman said.
“Your mind has to be in the right place, you have to have the correct mindset to stay safe and stay alive, essentially," he said. "So Bob had a great way of doing that in the mornings, and that was as important, if not more important, than the work we had to get done.”
Schmit is stepping away from what he loves and the camaraderie built with his staff, whom he considers his family. But, the memories remain, and there are a whole lot of those.
Like when he and his staff were on snow-scooping duty at Lake McConaughy during a particularly nasty blizzard.
“I wish we had the pictures so I could show you, I have them at home,” he said. “A few guys were looking at the pictures and they couldn’t believe it. The snow was as high as the top of the cab on the (snow) blower.”
There were the times in the late 1990s north of Morse Bluff when roads had to be replaced two years in a row because of severe flooding.
“We were there hauling rocks and dirt so they could get the road built back up," Schmit said.
There are the countless emergency situations he’s responded to, many of which are vividly seared into his mind. The job was tough some days. He has seen his fair share of death throughout the years. He’s seen too many wooden crosses erected in grassy medians and corners of intersections.
This is why he and his staff place such an emphasis on safety. Because while tragedy is inevitable, certain adverse situations are certainly preventable.
“People don’t understand or realize that if there is a 2-by-4 out on the highway, and cars are hitting it and dodging it and swerving, that it’s our responsibility to handle,” Wellman said.
Schmit said highway safety is paramount and that under Wellman’s leadership he has full faith in the office staff's ability to continue performing at a high level.
Wellman said he feels up to the challenge of leading the office, whether temporarily or permanently.
“I’m really excited about trying to live up to my potential,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m going to try to fill Bob’s shoes by any means of the imagination, but I’m going to do the best I can to keep things rolling around here.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at email@example.com.