Paving her way on streets

March 14, 1994|By From Staff Reports

Daniel Shaffer Sr., the man who became Tonya Dowery's crew mate when she crossed the gender line and joined the Westminster street maintenance department, doesn't remember that she ever used a jackhammer.

But Mrs. Dowery remembers it very well.

"You just feel like your whole body's shaking," she said. "Then your hands get numb.

"There were times the guys would have to lift it up out of the hole for me, because it was just so heavy."

Working the 150-pound hammer to break up macadam or concrete is probably one of the roughest jobs in city street maintenance, said Wayne Reifsnider, building maintenance supervisor. "The men call that bull work."

Well, if anybody thought Mrs. Dowery would give up, he was wrong.

True, it was unbelievably hot work, patching blacktop and mowing grass in the summer. The heat ruined her makeup and sometimes she would go home so tired she didn't cook dinner.

But in the winter, she loved being out on the snowplow.

Street work wasn't that bad, in her view.

Mrs. Dowery joined the department after a printing plant laid her off in 1988. She was 25 years old, divorced (she and her husband remarried last summer), with a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son to support.

She had noticed that jobs traditionally held by men paid more than work usually done by women. She wanted a crack at a better-paying job.

"My message goes out to women: Don't give up. The opportunity is there if you reach out and take it. I think sometimes we scare ourselves," she said.

Donald A. Gross, street department superintendent, and William Mowell, then public works director, selected Mrs. Dowery over several other candidates.

"She was hired for street maintenance, any job," Mr. Gross said. "She worked blacktop, grounds, signs, parking meters."

Mr. Gross called the 18 male workers together, announced that a woman would be joining the department and gave them two practical admonitions: "This is what you've got to remember: When you go in the bathroom, close the door. And watch your language."

No one protested the hiring of a woman, Mr. Reifsnider said. But he heard mutterings and expressions of anxiety.

The working relationship Mrs. Dowery had with other crew members was different from that shared by the all-male work group.

Said Mr. Reifsnider, who talks fishing and race cars with his male assistant: "You'd probably have a different type of conversation with a woman."

Mrs. Dowery said co-workers never froze her out.

But "I think they just didn't know what kind of conversation to have with me," she said. "They're so busy talking man talk."

Mr. Shaffer, solid-waste foreman, was the staff member who worked most closely with Mrs. Dowery in the roughly six months she spent on the street crew. The pair handled bulk pickup of refrigerators and sofas and other large items not accepted in regular trash collection.

"She did right good," Mr. Shaffer said.

"I told her, 'If you can't handle it, ask me.' But she'd try it first," he said.

They got along well, except that he likes country music and she doesn't.

And she wasn't entirely happy the day she had to share space with a snake, a road kill victim that Mr. Shaffer picked up and threw in the back of the truck.

"It's just awfully difficult to sit on the back of the truck when there's something dead in there," Mrs. Dowery said.

Mrs. Dowery transferred from street work to become a dispatcher-clerk after Mr. Gross got City Council authorization for a clerical position 5 1/2 years ago.

She no longer works directly with most of the men, except for an occasional stint on the snowplows. But she says she still struggles with what they want her to be: one of the guys or a lady.

When she was scheduled to ride a snowplow route this winter, she changed from her usual dress attire into sweat pants and boots. She said her co-workers asked after she changed clothes, "Tonya, why are you dressed like that?"

Mrs. Dowery said the men have become comfortable enough having her around that if one smashes his finger in the shop and uses a few strong words, he no longer feels compelled to apologize.

Nonetheless, if she uses a four-letter word, the men will say, "Tonya, you can't say that."

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