Retirement marks 21 years of friendships for meter reader

February 14, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

At Jack D. Hesson's retirement party last month, one of his co-workers in the Westminster water department gave him a painting of a man whose keys and papers are scattering while he tries to extricate the seat of his pants from a dog's jaws.

"It was a picture of a typical day on the job," says Marilyn Reichert, a water and sewer billing clerk. Mrs. Reichert's sister did the painting in honor of Mr. Hesson, who will retire Feb. 28 after 21 years of reading, servicing and installing city water meters.

"Jack and I have a very special relationship," Mrs. Reichert says. "He's more like a second father than a fellow employee."

In bad weather, Mr. Hesson cleans windshields for female workers at City Hall and worries about them getting home. He shares jokes and stories from his days on the job. And he's philosophical about the canine job hazard.

"I usually get bit three or four times a year," he says. "Some are just little nicks. Some are pretty bad. If it draws a lot of blood, I have to go to the doctor."

Someone gave Mr. Hesson some candy kisses at the retirement party, in memory of the kissing dog. The late Erma King, the unofficial "mayor of Pennsylvania Avenue," used to recount with delight how her dog Tippy would kiss Mr. Hesson when he came to read the meter.

The object of the dog's affection was less enthusiastic than Miss King. "In front of her, I had to take it, but I wasn't too keen on it," Mr. Hesson says.

He says he regrets leaving the job, but not because it gave him the opportunity to write down numbers in a book. As Tommy Muse, who taught Mr. Hesson to read water meters, explains, "The hands point to the numbers and you just write the numbers down. It doesn't take any brains to do that."

What took brains was the diplomacy required to deal with people. The meter reader is responsible for trying to trace the sources of problems when customers complain of unusually high water bills. He double-checks his readings and, with permission, looks for leaks. Some customers insist their lines cannot be leaking, but refuse to let him check.

Mr. Hesson's key rings jingle with customer trust. The owners of the house keys are at work during the day, but they gave him duplicate keys so he could come in to read their meters.

New buildings have exterior meters. But in the older sections of Westminster, meters are inside the houses. Mr. Muse, who gave up reading meters in 1973 after a broken leg made climbing stairs difficult for him, recalls the hazards of low basement ceilings and wooden stairs with rotting steps.

Despite the problems of old basements, indoor meters were responsible for the social component of Mr. Hesson's job. He always carried peppermints for the children. He got to know the older people, learned about their families, and followed the progress of children and grandchildren. Bridge groups would insist that he sit down, have some cookies and talk for a while.

Mr. Hesson was born March 13, 1927, in a house at the corner of Winters Alley and Carroll Street. He attended Westminster High School, but quit before graduating. "The worst thing I ever did," he says.

"You need an education today, something besides walking the streets like me. There are better jobs. But, of course, that's no good if you don't like the job."

Mr. Hesson said he liked his first job as a milkman for Frizzellburg-based Willow Farms Dairy, which was owned by his father-in-law. He continued to deliver milk after Greenspring Dairy bought the local company, but was glad to give up the drive to Baltimore when he heard through his friend Mr. Muse about the meter reader's job.

Mr. Hesson reads 6,814 meters a year, more than double the approximately 3,000 meters that existed when he started the job in 1973.

He says he's not ready to quit yet, but his wife, Betty, is retiring from her job at Kelly's Stationery Store in Westminster. They agreed to retire together while they're still in good health and can travel.

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