Ex-Middletown Superintendent of Highways Bill Russell enjoying life in the slow lane since retiring from position

By Brian Sweeney
Bill Russell, highway superintendent for the Town of Middletown since 1991, is now enjoying retirement since stepping down from his position in late May.Bill RussellBill Russell

Bill began working summers for the town highway department in 1971 and continued part-time work with the town for several years. He attended Ulster County Community College and Delhi Tech and worked a short stint as a park ranger before taking a full-time position on the Middletown highway crew in 1976.

When Superintendent of Highways Jeff Pendell became ill, Bill took over the superintendent’s duties in 1991.

Looking back on his years with the highway department, Bill said he has mostly fond memories of his tenure.

Two catastrophic floods in 1996 — the first in January and then again in November — stand out in Bill’s mind as the biggest challenges faced by his crew. He said that another six or seven floods since that time also added a significant burden for his employees.

“We accomplished a lot of work with all the floods we had and we were able to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for repairs to culverts and bridges and for shoring rock walls.”

In addition to the visible efforts of repairing flood damage, Bill said the paperwork involved to receive federal assistance for this work was also a monumental task for his department and the town clerk.

Bill pointed to a number of significant changes since he began work with the town. Among the biggest improvements, he pointed out, was the construction of a modern highway garage about eight years ago.

“Having the new highway garage made my job a whole lot easier,” Bill commented, noting that the building provides quality storage and work space.

Another big difference over the decades has been the growth in the second-home market — and the roads that accompanied this trend.

Bill said in the early 1970s the town was responsible for approximately 109 miles of roads. Today, that figure has risen to about 127 miles. The steady growth of the second home market brought a corresponding rise in traffic. This increased road usage has directly translated into the need for more plowing and upkeep.

Fortunately, he pointed out, equipment advances have made road maintenance more economical and safer. He noted that, for small roads, plowing with pickup trucks has replaced slow, inefficient graders.

Bill recalled that his early days on the highway crew often involved trucks that were past their prime — and lacking in essentials such as efficient heating and air conditioning.
“Today’s trucks are much more comfortable,” Bill pointed out.
While he appreciates the advancements of modern equipment, Bill did note one drawback.
“With the all the technological changes, much more diagnostic work is needed. The older trucks were simpler to work on,” he explained.
The unpredictability of weather — particularly in the winter — is also something that has resulted in adjustments for the highway superintendent and his crew.
“In the 1970s, we had our share of snow, but it didn’t seem to come all the time. It goes in cycles,” Bill noted.
Now that he’s had some time away from the job, Bill said he’s keeping busy with projects around his New Kingston home and other hobbies that have been neglected. He and his wife, Trudy, also plan to take more time to visit their children, Casey, who resides in Colorado and is preparing for a career in civil engineering, and Heather, who will graduate as a doctor of physical therapy in September and lives outside New York City.

Asked how he would look back upon his time in the highway department, Bill summed it up easily.
“I won’t miss winters and floods…otherwise it was fun.”