Superintendent of snow is retiring to his shovel When storms struck, Donald Gross hit road to supervise cleanup

December 21, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Let it snow. Donald A. Gross will be able to sit by the window and watch the drifts -- for the first time in 25 years.

Gross, who first climbed on a Westminster city snowplow as a water department employee in 1973, officially will retire Dec. 31, although he's taking accumulated leave time until then. When he became Westminster streets, buildings and parks superintendent in 1982, he left a standing order with city police: "When that first flake hits the ground, call me."

Retirement, at age 62, will give Gross time to shovel his sidewalk after a storm -- a task that was always delayed until after city streets were passable. He will work part time maintaining apartments for a local landlord.

Larry Bloom, assistant superintendent at the city water treatment plant and Gross' son-in-law, will take over as superintendent of streets, buildings and parks Jan. 1.

"Donald is the kind of first-sergeant type of guy who gets the job done," said his boss, Thomas B. Beyard, city planning and public works director. "He can use the carrot-and-stick approach. When he has to be tough, he can be, but on the flip side of that he has another type of approach."

Beyard valued Gross' ability to deal with matters that are important to residents: a missed bulk trash pickup, a request to patch a pothole, a street blacktopping job that left a bump.

"That ambassador role is very important," Beyard said. "That's what the public sees."

When the weather forecast called for snow, Gross was usually awake before city police called.

He couldn't sleep, kept waking up and turning on the light. When the snow started, he jumped in his pickup truck and cruised the streets to determine when to call out the plows. City crews generally start salting streets within half an hour after a snowfall begins, to make the snow easier to remove.

Snowstorms meant work. Blizzards meant more work. Westminster has had four blizzards during Gross' city career. Local weather observer Larry Myers recorded blizzards -- defined as snowstorms with 35 mph or higher winds and blowing snow that reduces visibility to near zero -- in 1979, 1983, 1993 and 1996.

Gross is proud that 24 hours after the blizzard of 1996, "every street in Westminster was open."

"It might not have been two-way traffic, but you could get through," he recalled.

During and after snowstorms, Gross and dispatcher Tonya Dowery fielded phone calls from impatient city residents.

During one blizzard, Gross said, a caller wanted a street plowed so he could drive out to buy a cup of coffee. A woman wanted the city to send someone to get the snow off her roof. Others requested city crews to shovel their sidewalks. Some callers claimed an "emergency," which too often turned out to be no more than a desire to get to work. The city now requires that callers claiming emergencies dial 911.

During his tenure, the department has grown from 12 workers operating about $50,000 worth of equipment to 20 full-time and two seasonal employees operating $1 million worth of equipment. Department employees plow and patch 54 miles of city streets, maintain 10 city buildings, mow grass and trim bushes in 10 parks, paint stripes in parking lots and repair broken meters and pick up bulk trash.

Gross has done most of the things he asks his workers to do. In the first years of his tenure, he went out with crews on "pretty near every job we did," he said. He was available to anyone who wanted to talk about problems ranging from alcohol abuse or divorce to job safety. He is proud of his rapport with the workers, but, "I think I took too much on."

Gross had a heart attack in 1986, a quadruple bypass in 1992 and angioplasty to open his arteries this year. He doesn't think his heart problems are job-related, but he has been stressed lately. The stress level led him to conclude that it was time for a younger man to take the responsibility.

Gross never expected his career to go so far. Youngest of 17 children, Gross grew up on a farm near Ladiesburg. "We were poor, but we got along good," he said.

A rebel in school, Gross quit after the eighth grade at Taneytown Junior High School, then worked at a bakery until he could join the Army at age 17. The Army taught him electrical work. After he was discharged in 1956, he worked at Cambridge Rubber Co. in Taneytown, then took a job with a Taneytown electrician.

In 1972, Gross was offered a meatpacking job by Westminster Mayor Joseph "Jack" Hahn, then president of Hahn's of Westminster. Gross turned it down, but Hahn offered him a city job and, in 1973, Gross became an assistant foreman of the water distribution crew that installed mains.

Carroll Dell, then city public works director, recruited Gross to head the streets department.

Gross hates to say goodbye.

"The city of Westminster is a wonderful place to work," he said. "It's like a family here. I think everyone cares about everyone."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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