2014-09-26 / Front Page

Everyday Maine: Russ Lunt

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


Russ Lunt Russ Lunt SOUTH PORTLAND — If you’ve been to any meeting of the South Portland City Council over the past two years, or watched one broadcast on community television, you’ve seen him, posted in his customary seat just behind and to the right of the speaker’s podium. And, if you’ve driven any road in South Portland, anywhere, ever, you’ve experienced his handiwork.

What you may not know is his name. He’s Russ Lunt, a South Portland native and 34-year veteran of the city’s public works department. Lunt retired two years ago and has since made a hobby of attending all council meetings, because, he says, “I just like to keep up on things.”

In an interview conducted Sept. 20 in his Brigham Street home, Lunt took time to talk about his life and career.

Q: Where and when were you born?

A: In May 1958 I was hatched. I’m a South Portland boy, all 56 years. When I was 2 we moved to Bayview Avenue, in the Meeting House Hill neighborhood, and that’s where I grew up. My mother lives there still, in the house she bought for $8,000.

Q: What kind of family did you come from?

A: Blue collar. My father worked at the U.S. Post Office and my mother worked at Maine National Bank. I have two brothers and one sister. I’m the oldest son, but the second child.

Q: What was your neighborhood like when you were a kid?

A: There were three schools right in our one little area. Every family had six, seven, eight, nine kids. Just on Bayview, Chase Street and Bellview Avenue, we had 60 or 70 — just a mountain of kids, and all Catholics. So, a lot different than it is today.

Q: What was it like growing up in South Portland in the 1960s?

A: I always amused myself. I never, ever got bored. Back then, we had what we called “The Piggery,” which is the dead-end of Everett Avenue and Lowell (Street). There was a pig farm there years ago and it was just a big, open field. We’d spend countless hours in the piggery. We used to go sliding and ice skating there, or just walking or biking through. I had a little Stingray bike and I lived on that thing when I was 10 or 11.

Where the CVS is today there used to be a Bowl-a-Rama and we’d go bowling at least once or twice a week. Things just seemed easier; you could get anywhere. There were hardly any traffic lights. The Maine Mall wasn’t even thought of then. From where Home Depot is now, going out, it was all just farmland. In fact, where the mall is was also a pig farm — Dyke Farm it was called. There used to be pig farms on both ends of town.

Q: What was your first job?

A: I had a paper route when I was 12. Back then we had papers morning and night and I delivered the night paper. The Evening Express it was called. I had 70 customers, and over 100 on Sunday. I also mowed lawns starting when I was 13 — $2 a lawn was what I got, and in the winter I’d shovel for the same price. And back then we got some major storms. I mean, major. Sometimes I’d work three or four hours on just one place, and I never charged more.

Q: It doesn’t sound like you made much profit.

A: Well, everything was cheaper back then. Up on Cottage Road where the Big Apple is now, that used to be Howe’s Chevron. I’d go up and get a gallon of gas, 32 cents a gallon, put that in my little mower, and it’d last me all month.

Q: What do you think of when you pass some of those lawns today?

A: Well, a lot of them aren’t there anymore. South Portland lawns were a lot bigger then, not these little postage stamp things. A lot of the lawns I used to mow, they’ve got houses on them today.

Q: What else did you do for fun as a

kid?

A: Well, I practically grew up on Willard Beach. And, man, that was a lot different than it is now, too. When I was a little fella, they didn’t have the sewer separated from the stormwater, or any of these pumping stations, and certainly not the treatment plant. There are two huge brown pipes that are still there at Willard today and that’s where raw sewage used to dump in. When I’d swim I used to get little bits of toilet paper caught between my toes. That water was totally contaminated. It’s amazing I never got hepatitis, God’s truth. See, the thing is, the water doesn’t go from Willard Beach. With the other beaches, the tide would take the sewage out and wash it away, but there it’s a cove — Simonton Cove it’s called — and the water just stays there. So, it used to be pretty God-awful gross. But, back then, I didn’t know any better. Nobody did.

Q: When did you graduate from high school?

A: 1976. In school I ran track, sprints and relays. I was a co-captain for two years, along with Nat Tupper, who’s now the town manager in Yarmouth. We were a damn good team. I was on the all-star team and got five letters. Back then, that part of the high school they just tore down was brand new and we thought it was so nice. We used to run sprints up and down the halls.

Q: What did you do after high school?

A: I went to what’s now SMCC (Southern Maine Community College). I got my associate’s degree in automotive technology. I thought I wanted to be a mechanic. I was working at the Holiday Inn by the Bay then for $2.30 an hour — that’s what minimum wage was — and when I graduated I got a job at Pape Chevrolet. I did that for a year or two before I decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like being confined in one spot all the time. I liked to get out and about. My uncle had a job at public works at the time and he mentioned there was a job open on the back of a rubbish truck. I did that for about a year, if you can believe it. But then the city had some tough financial times right after they built the pool at the community center and they laid off six or seven guys. I was one of them. But I was lucky. There was a custodian job open at Mahoney (Middle School) and I got to go there for a whole school year. Then they had a few retirees and spots opened up again on public works. So, I went back, again on the back of the rubbish truck. I was there for another year and a half.

Q: What was it like hauling city garbage in that era?

A: Oh, man, we did it in all weather — blistering hot, blistering cold, it didn’t matter. Back then, in ’78, ’79, we had some vicious snowstorms, and they never called rubbish off. A plow would go by and bury everything and we’d have to pull trash cans and bags out of snow banks six feet tall. It was tough. But, back then, it was Ge Erskine in charge of public works. He didn’t care, you did your job.

Q: What’s the craziest thing you recall happening from your time on the rubbish truck?

A: Back then the city had four heavy cleanups per year. That’s something people would like to have back again, I’ll tell you — people threw out some good stuff. But I remember one guy ripped a whole garage down for heavy trash day. It took us almost the whole day to do just his one place. He really took advantage of us. And also, remember, back then there were no garbage disposals, and none of this composting stuff. So, it got pretty awful. Somebody’d have a lobster on Friday, you wouldn’t pick it up until Thursday, and it’d be just a-steamin’. Whooo!

Oh, and here’s another thing. I got to be a trainer and I actually trained Doug Howard, who’s the public works director now. He actually started out on the back of the garbage truck. Now, I think that’s excellent. He knows every job all the way up through, every single job, which is good, because the people of South Portland, they really do expect a lot.

Q: Were you glad to get off the trash truck?

A: Yes, I was. You see, back then, you couldn’t really get promoted. If you were on the rubbish truck, you were on the rubbish truck. You had to get what was then called a Class B license — that was the only way off the truck. But nobody left that job. Back then, being a rubbish guy was a good job, with benefits and everything. I did finally got my Class B, but even then I’d still sometimes have to do rubbish. Some of the guys they hired underneath us, they didn’t really care for the cold, so they’d call in sick, and the call would go out to the next junior guy — last off, first back on.

Q: What did you do after you got your Class B license?

A: What I did primarily all through the ’80s and into the ’90s was hot top work. Today they have the big skid steer, but back then we did it all by hand — just open up the tailgate and wheel it. I used to wheel sometimes up to 15 or 16 tons a day of hot top (a day). I was skinny as a rail back then. I’d go get the load, bring in back and wheel it, wheel it, wheel it. Then another guy would rake it and another would roll it out. We worked our butts off. And no breaks. Again, Ge Erskine was a tough guy to work with. Well, I shouldn’t say that. He was a perfectionist. He was tough, but fair. He was a great boss, really. He expected a lot out of you, especially when I started plowing.

Q: What was it like driving a plow truck for Erskine?

A: Well, I tell you, we had these big, heavy plow trucks. And here I am, 23 years old on these big, huge hills over by Lincoln Street. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. We had standard shift trucks back then, if you can imagine. They’re all pushbutton automatics now, nothing to it. But on those old trucks you’d be shifting, and pulling levers for the plow and the wing, yanking lavers this way and that way, downshifting, and backing up. You got some busy inside that cab let me tell you. I had a four-hour plow route, but it was non-stop. You’d do it once and then have to go right back over it. The longest I ever worked was 32 hours straight. You’d get a short break to eat, then right back at it. You couldn’t even sleep, or, if you could, you’d catch a quick nap on the floor of a building at public works we called “the hut.” Honest to God. Ge was fussy. If there was an inch (of snow) you kept at it.

Q: Did you ever hit anything with a plow truck?

A: I did hit one car, once. It was a white car and it was right up underneath me. It was following too close. I hit a snow bank and bounced sideways and hit it. It was their fault, following too close, but it still went on my record. See, when you’re plowing, you can’t see 10 feet in front of you. And then your windshield wipers freeze up, and you can’t see out your mirrors. It’s a lot of guesswork. I’m not surprised they’re having such problems with Legion Square today, they way it’s been narrowed up.

Q: What else did you do for public works?

A: At the end of it, for about the last 10 years, I was in the sign shop. We made all the street signs, just me and another guy. Now he’s by himself. Then, every year we’d paint all the crosswalks. The city has more than 2,000 of those. We did them all at night.

Q: How did working for public works change over the years?

A: Well, the city got twice the size. When I first started, South Portland basically stopped at the dump on outer Highland Avenue, by the Scarborough line where all the houses are now. At the time that area was a junkyard for Scarborough Auto Parts. It was awful, just gross — cars leaking oil everywhere. We called it Junkyard Acres.

The equipment has also gotten better. What Ge would do, he’d go out to these towns and New Hampshire that were getting rid of their trucks and make them frontline trucks for us. He’d buy their surplus and get three trucks for the price of one. Of course, the council loved that. But those things always broke down. The cabs were rusted right off them. I mean, you’re buying somebody else’s junk for God’s sake. When we started going new, I noticed a big difference, on all aspects. You can do a much better job when you have good equipment. That’s why I was such a pusher for the new public works garage, because those guys are still in a facility that was there before my father was born. That building is ancient. It’s decrepit. I’m very proud of what I did to help them get the new facility they’ll start building soon.

Q: What did you do to help get the new complex?

A: I just promoted it to everyone I knew. I was on a committee with (Councilor) Maxine Beecher. There were about 10 of us. We made a couple of videos. I also wrote letters to the newspapers and put it on all social media. I think, or at least I hope, that I was instrumental in getting that (bond) passed, because that’s dear, dear to my heart. Those guys deserve a good facility.

Q: What do you think should be done with the current public works site?

A: I think a really nice housing development would be wonderful in there, if the land isn’t too contaminated. That’s what I’m concerned about. When I first started there it was a dirt parking lot and they used creosote to keep the dust down. That probably leached into the ground. And the big underground gas tanks for the vehicles, those used to leak. And then there’s all the salt, and oil, and calcium chloride. Parts of that place, I’m afraid it might be contaminated. It could be very, very expensive to clean up. I don’t think it’s so bad from what I know that it can’t be cleaned up and made into a wonderful, wonderful development, but I’m afraid it may be cost prohibitive to put in the kind of homes working people can afford.

Q: Going back to your career in public works, what are you most proud of?

A: You know, really, all of it. I was very proud to work for the city.

I love South Portland. I love it, love it. I think I’ve done something on just about every single street in the city in some way — paving an entrance, laying down loam, putting up a sign. As far as specific projects, there’s Ocean Street. We did that whole sidewalk one summer — me, Doug Howard and Joe Colucci — all the way from the pizza joint to the Cape Elizabeth town line. I did a lot around the mall area when that was first starting up, and I was involved putting in the curbing and sidewalks in the newer neighborhoods when they first started up, like Country Gardens, Highland Meadows, and Crestview. I also did a lot of work on the Greenbelt Walkway. Up behind Docks Seafood, by Amato’s, where the trail is now, all the way to the dump that used to be just a swamp. That [trail] has been such a great thing for the city, so that’s another thing I’m proud of. And then there’s Thomas Knight Park, underneath the bridge. That’s a real hidden gem I wish more people knew about. I helped put that together.

Q: What makes South Portland so special, that you never had the urge to live anywhere else?

A: You’ve got a little bit of everything here, from the ocean to the Maine Mall. The government here is very proactive. (City Manager) Jim Gailey does a fantastic job and, one thing I respect, just like Doug Howard he came right up through the ranks. We have a great city council. And the city is just so beautiful. It’s a clean city — nothing like Portland. But, one thing, South Portland is all about neighborhoods. Each one is distinctive. People actually say, I come from Thornton Heights, or I’m from Ferry Village. It’s like, people’s identity is in their neighborhoods, and I like that.

Q: Did you have a family of your own?

A: I was married for five years to a girl I went with all though high school. We had a son and we got divorced in 1986. He lives up in Gray now and works over in Portland. We get along great, but, unfortunately, my job kind of got in the way a little bit when he was young, what with the overtime from the plowing. You had to be available, and I mean available, from Nov. 1 all the way through to the middle of April and, when they called, they expected you to be there. Sometimes I’d have him for the weekend and I’d get called in. My mother would take him, but sometimes it was hard to make arrangements. So, my son, his early years were tough, because, when you work for the city, you have to be dedicated. But then again, that’s one thing I’m proud of — I was real, real dedicated to my job.

Q: How long did you work for South Portland?

A: Thirty-four years. And I thank the good Lord. I got a great retirement from them. The city has been real, real good to me. I really, truly appreciate everything it’s done for me.

Q: These days, you attend every city council meeting. Why do you do that?

A: I was always interested in city government. I love listening to the banter between the councilors. But when I was working, they did not encourage you to go to the council meetings, they didn’t really want you doing that so much. I’m not a watchdog. I don’t get up and speak on every issue. I just like to get up and interject things other people might be thinking but don’t dare say. But the biggest thing about going to the meetings, really, is just to be involved.

Q: Have you considered running for city council?

A: I honestly did think of it, because I live in District 5 and Jerry Jalbert’s not running again. I thought and I thought and I thought about it, but it’s just such a major commitment, and I have no political experience.

Q: What are the biggest needs of the city right now?

A: I think the neighborhoods are pretty well set. And, as far as the city goes, South Portland, I think, is a pretty welloiled machine. But it’s running out of house lots. I’ve had developers approach me because they could put two houses where my yard sits. Really, there’s no place to go but up. I’d support a high-rise building, but I think I’m in the minority on that. The city could use a parking garage, I think, downtown, or by SMCC, which is a tremendous asset, but, same thing, it’s got no place to go but up. Other than that, we just need to attract and retain more businesses. I think it’s a shame they’re trying to run Portland Pipe Line out of town. I really do think that’s what these tar sands folks are after.

Q: How has South Portland changed over the years?

A: Knightville has totally changed. Waterman Drive has totally changed. And then there’s the bridge. When they were first building that in 1997, I was like, how on earth is that going to work. But I think that opened things up. I think we get a lot more people in South Portland from across the bridge now. It’s easier access going both ways. I think that’s one reason more and more people are moving into South Portland from Portland. We used to be all blue-collar people on this side, but now it’s more and more professional people. There’s fewer kids and more dogs. I lot of people in South Portland have dogs now and they never did when I was a kid.

Q: Based on your life experience, what advice would you have for a young person, just starting out?

A: Just work hard. And I definitely would advise anybody who can to move to South Portland. It’s a fantastic place to be. It’s got beautiful neighborhoods, a great school system, a good government. I was born here, I went to school here, I worked here and I retired here. My whole life has been South Portland and I’ve loved every second of it.

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