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Two public works employees retire after combined 68 years with Nobles County

Rick Staples logged nearly 37 years in his job, while Rocky Kolar spent more than 31 years in the Nobles County Public Works department.

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Rick Staples, retiring after nearly 37 years with Nobles County 04 29 21. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — The Nobles County Public Works Department honored two of its employees this week with retirement parties. Rocky Kolar, engineering support supervisor, and Rick Staples, maintenance worker, each worked their last day on Thursday after a combined 68 years of service.

Kolar, who logged more than 31 years in the department, worked his way up after starting out as an engineering technician in 1989. In his current position for the last seven years, he oversaw roadway and bridge culvert design, supervised engineering staff and supported county engineer Stephen Schnieder.

Staples, meanwhile, worked a few factory jobs after high school until deciding he’d rather work outdoors. After a 10-year stint as a pipe layer, he was hired by Nobles County to clear county roads of snow every winter, and perform road work year-round.

Their longevity in their positions is not something that happens frequently, and Kolar suspects it to be even less so in the future.

“People come and go — you’ll never see the longevity that our generation had,” shared Kolar on Thursday morning. “Some of these younger people think they’re entitled to a living. You earn a living.”

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For Kolar, who left high school in 1977 and married wife Karen two weeks later, earning a living meant doing whatever he could to support his family. He worked for a plumber in Lakefield and then as a set-up and diesel mechanic in Westbrook through the late 1980s, when he lost his job in the dwindling farm economy.

“I stumbled around trying to support my wife and children — I shingled homes and did whatever I could do,” he said.

Then, when he returned home from work one day, Karen handed him a course booklet from Mankato Vo-Tech. While Kolar said there was no way he could go to school when he had a wife and three kids to support, she was equally as stubborn and insisted he find something that interested him.

Kolar found a program on civil engineering that was just 11 months in length.

“It had math, and I enjoy math,” he said.

Once he had his degree, Kolar worked for Fishel Construction in Storden for two years. The job took him away from his family for longer stretches of time, and that didn’t work for him. He wanted to be home at night and on the weekends, and a job posting in Nobles County sounded like a great option.

“I was fortunate that Steve (Schnieder, public works director) saw something and offered me the job at the interview,” Kolar said. “I was unemployed and committed myself to learning the job the best I could.”

Even when the job included learning from temporary summer workers, Kolar listened and learned and worked his way up to second-in-command behind Schnieder.

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“I couldn’t have found a better place to work,” Kolar said. “I had good people with me — Poncho White and Jerry Wiertzema.”

Kolar announced his retirement six weeks ago, hoping to get someone into the position to get some training. The first application round, however, netted no applicants. He has two people who work under him in the department, but one has about three years experience and the other has only been in the job a year.

The decision to retire at this time came with Kolar’s 62nd birthday on April 20 and his qualifying for the Rule of 90 (years of service plus age being equal to or greater than 90). There were other factors, though, as well. Kolar had a triple bypass in June 2020 — the second time he’s had open heart surgery — and he’s also ready to end the 38-mile one-way drive to work.

“I want to do more travelling, see the grandkids play ball,” he said. “I want to do something different — take on a different adventure.”

That new adventure is managing the Westbrook VFW and working the bar as needed. Kolar, who served six years as Westbrook’s mayor and six years prior to that as a city councilman, was told he had the job when he made an off-hand remark one day that he was retiring from Nobles County and could take care of the recordkeeping and management.

The job will keep him around people, which is what he will miss the most by not working with Nobles County.

On his last day in the office, Kolar made sure everything was in place for the department to continue without him. Construction projects are approved and contracts are signed — it’s just a matter of getting the work done.

“Nobles County 10, by the new school, I wish it was done but it’s not,” Kolar said. “We’re putting in turn lanes and putting in curb and gutter past the new school.”

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There’s also retrofits to ADA ramps in Wilmont, Lismore and Brewster, several road overlay projects, gravel repair projects, and funding for eight culvert bridge replacements.

The one project Kolar said he was most proud to work on was the rural intersection lighting project in Nobles County that was completed within the last couple of years. Having driven U.S. 59 many times in bad weather to and from work, he said, “Man, they’re wonderful.”

For Staples, who has traveled Nobles County’s roads day after day for the past 37 years as a maintenance worker, retirement will mean sleeping in and enjoying doing nothing for a while. His job has had him plowing snow, graveling county roads, doing road maintenance projects and hauling materials.

Whether rain, sleet or snow, icy roads or dry, Staples has been the guy behind the wheel of a big truck working to keep the county’s roads in good shape.

“We definitely have our challenging days,” he said on Thursday. “I like (the work) year round, as long as you can see what you’re doing.”

After nearly 37 years with Nobles County’s public works department, Staples spent his last hours on the job with a retirement party Thursday afternoon.

He wanted to retire while he was still healthy and mobile and “just enjoy nothing and see what that’s like,” he said.

A lifelong resident of Worthington, Staples said he won’t miss the 5 a.m. starts when he had to go out and plow snow, and intends to sleep through those early mornings in retirement.

“I’ll look out the window at 7 and see what it’s doing,” he said with a laugh.

It was the variety of work that kept Staples coming back to work day after day. There was a good mix of work to do and it was never boring. He also enjoyed the camaraderie of his coworkers, and said he will miss their daily interactions — although not the teasing that would come with getting a plow stuck in a ditch.

“The guys are great — they can even chase me down and get a picture of me in the ditch somewhere,” he said with a laugh, adding that it happened “a time or two” during his tenure.

After 37 years working on the roads, Staples said there will be some travelling in retirement. He and his wife, Richele, are avid motorcyclists and hope to take a few trips with their bikes.

“I’m a pretty simple guy — I enjoy walking, bicycling — it’s not going to be real crazy,” he shared.

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Rocky Kolar of Westbrook spent his last day on the job Thursday, April 29, 2021, finishing up any loose ends as engineering support supervisor. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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