Hometown guy: Jim Laffrenzen retires after 42 years of working for city
WORTHINGTON -- As the newbie on the Worthington Street Department in late 1970, one of Jim Laffrenzen's first tasks was to walk in front of what was then the city's sole snowblower, directing its path and that of the drivers who were hauling off the snow.
"It was cold, and you had to dodge ice chunks, but it was a job," he recalled. "Those first seven winters, I probably spent 15 to 18 hours straight every time it snowed out in front of that blower."
Today, Jim officially begins his retirement after 42 years in the City of Worthington's employ. During those four decades, he worked his way up through the ranks, starting as the "low man on the totem pole" and ending his tenure with the title superintendent of public works.
"I had my mind made up, if I was going to work for the city of Worthington, I was going to take advantage of every opportunity to move up," he said.
Born and raised on a farm outside of Worthington, Jim didn't give much thought to ever living anywhere else. He graduated from high school in 1967 and the local junior college in 1969.
"My parents were here, my relatives were here, and I never had any reason to leave Worthington," he said. "This is where my home was, where I felt comfortable."
Shortly after his high school graduation, Jim was approached by Burt Broste, manager of Lampert Yards. He was looking for a manager trainee, and Jim had shown an aptitude for such a career on a high school career test.
"But the draft was on, and I didn't have my draft fulfillment done yet, and he needed someone who had that done," Jim explained. "But he also had a part-time job available, so I took that."
A fellow Lampert employee, Bill Boltjes, encouraged Jim to go over to Jackson and enlist in the National Guard in order to fulfill that draft obligation. After completing his National Guard training, he returned to Lampert Yards.
"Bill Boltjes told me that he was looking for another job, and then he got a job with the street department," recalled Jim. "So I told him, 'If anything comes up at the city, let me know.' I knew that any business could close, but the city would always be there."
Boltjes followed through on that promise, and pretty soon the street superintendent, Tom Moore, paid Jim a visit.
"Bill is moving up to the engineering department, and he said I should hire you. You wanna work for the city?'" recounted Jim about the conversation. "I said, 'You bet.' So Bill got me that job. I took a 50 cent pay cut, started at $1.25 an hour."
In those early years, Jim's duties included being a snowblower spotter, plowing snow, trimming trees, filling potholes and making street signs.
"When I started out, we made all the street signs by hand, and I spent the entire winter doing that," he recalled. "We'd buy the blanks, all the letters, and we vacuum-heated everything. When Northland Mall was built, I made all the fire lane signs for them, and when they put up the Peace Avenue of Flags, I did those, too. They're pretty well all gone by now."
In 1978, Jim achieved the title of street foreman.
"I ran the street department, and the airport was part of that," he said. "Then, in September 1992, Randy Griffith was director of public works, and he decided to take early retirement. He called me in and said, 'We need someone in this office to keep things going here, for six weeks or whatever it takes to fill the position.'"
Six weeks turned into two months, and Jim finally approached then-city administrator Greg Sparks about when a replacement would be hired. Instead, the city council decided to make an internal move, and gave Jim the job permanently.
"I wasn't looking for this one," said Jim with a laugh. "That was a challenge. Alice Hoffman was the secretary, and she and I learned a lot together."
The encompassing title of "public works" added a few more departments to Jim's jurisdiction.
"As it stands, public works involves streets, parks, airport, and then just a bunch of catch-all stuff," Jim explained. "What nobody else wanted, Jim got."
As Jim reflects on his lengthy career with the city, he marvels at just how much things have changed over the years. The city crews are significantly smaller than they were when he started, largely due to cuts in the state's Local Government Aid; the equipment they use is significantly better; and technology is used in just about every aspect of his job.
"Now we can get done in eight days what used to take six weeks," he recalled. "Here in the office, I would write something up, Alice would type it up, I would proof it, and then she would retype it. Now we have the computer and the cellphone -- my office away from the office. In this job, you're in the office a lot, but working in the field some, too. My philosophy from Day One was that you're only as good as that person below you, and you'd better be able to do the job they're doing, too. I've lived by that all my life."
One of his key duties has been "moving projects along."
"That's been really rewarding the last five, six years, in how the community has moved forward," he said. "I know the sale of the hospital was a controversial thing, but it provided some golden opportunities."
In recent years, for instance, the playground equipment in all of Worthington's parks has been upgraded to the latest safety standards. New basketball and volleyball courts were added at Centennial Park. The boat landing at Ehlers Park has been hard-surfaced, and a handicapped fishing pier was installed at Freedom Shore Park.
"And the airport. People don't realize -- I didn't realize -- how important an asset the airport is," he said, recalling an instance from a couple of years ago when a man in need of serious medical attention couldn't get to a medical facility in Sioux Falls, S.D., because of blizzard conditions. But an aircraft could fly into the Worthington airport and transport the man for the needed care. "That's a lifeline out there. That's why I push so hard for the airport. It also brings businesses into our community.
"I'm proud of our parks, proud of the airport," continued Jim. "And the streets, too. I'm leaving at the optimal time. The council, over the last 10 to 15 years, has been proactive in maintaining our infrastructure. We've basically reconstructed the streets, and that's how we get by with the manpower we get by with. I just feel really good about leaving. We've done a lot of good planning and done some positive things."
Something that Jim won't miss in retirement are the phone calls in the middle of the night informing him about a slick street intersection or having to send out the plows in the wee hours. He looks forward to nights of uninterrupted sleep and spending more time with his family. He and wife Paula --married for 41 years -- have two daughters, Michelle and Dawn, and three grandchildren, all who live a short drive away in Sioux Falls.
"They've already got me booked up," said Jim. "We bought a camper travel-trailer, and last summer was our first year camping. It has three bunks in the back for the grandkids. We like to go to the state parks."
Paula is still employed as a paraprofessional at Worthington Middle School, and Jim anticipates that she'll have a "honey-do" list ready for him.
"But my big hobby is I repair and finish old furniture," he said, crediting a neighbor, John M. Jansen, with getting him hooked on the pastime. "I started doing that for other people. I like to take an old piece of furniture -- I don't care how dilapidated -- and bring it back to life. I really enjoy that, and I think I'll enjoy it more now that I can go out there and take my time. I'd also like to do some volunteering."
Jim feels like he still has a lot to contribute to his community -- just in a different capacity than he has done for the last 42 years.
"My goal, if I didn't do anything else, has always been to treat everyone in this community on an equal basis," he said. "I tried to do what was best for the community. It's been a wonderful, wonderful experience to serve the community, and as a public employee, that's what your job is.... I've always considered myself a servant of the people. This community has been good to me. It's been a good ride."
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.