ROAD TO RETIREMENT: Longtime Big Rapids street superintendent Johnson leaving

Longtime Big Rapids street superintendent Van Johnson poses beside a city department of public works truck Wednesday. Johnson will retire at the end of the year after more than 40 years of working for the city. (Pioneer photo/Tim Rath)

BIG RAPIDS — The city’s most senior staff member is set to retire later this month after 44 years of service.

Van Johnson, 62, has worked as street superintendent in Big Rapids since 1988. Previous to that experience, he worked as a heavy equipment operator, light equipment operator and laborer for the city. Apart from a short stint working at Hall’s Market in Big Rapids, the city has been Johnson’s only employer.

“I’ve really appreciated being here all these years,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I consider this to be my home and the employees here to be my family. We all get along and I feel like we’ve done good work. I’m proud of it.”

One of the biggest ways in which Johnson will be missed is his focus on finances, according to Big Rapids Department of Public Works Director Heather Bowman.

“That is always something on the back of (Johnson’s) mind — you never have to question that he’s thinking of the most economical way to do something, because he’s the first to say, ‘You know, if we did this instead of this, we could save the city a lot of money,'” Bowman said. “It’s great to have that kind of person working with you.”

In addition, more than four decades on the job has provided Johnson with institutional knowledge of Big Rapids that is second to none, city manager Mark Gifford said.

Gifford recalled an incident many years ago, while he himself was working as director of neighborhood services, when he realized the respect Johnson had among other city employees. There had been a traffic crash at the intersection of Maple and State streets involving a large commercial vehicle which had caused significant damage.

As Gifford made his way to the scene with Tim Vogel, another city employee, he wondered aloud what the two would see when they arrived.

“Tim told me, ‘Van said it’s bad, and if Van says it’s bad, you had better believe it, because he’s seen it all,'” Gifford recalled. “That says a lot right there. … Van is a fixture for us here in Big Rapids — certainly for us who work for the city, but for many, many people in the public as well. You can’t replicate that easily.”

Johnson attributed much of the knowledge he has attained to the changes he has seen in the street department since starting out.

Perhaps most significant is the amount of manpower. In the mid-’70s, Johnson said, there were 32 staffers. Now, that number is cut in half.

Part of the reason for that are changes in the responsibilities of the department — for example, Johnson used to drive a garbage truck for the city, but those services have long since been privatized. But there are other reasons.

“There’s better equipment we have nowadays, things that have made some people obsolete,” Johnson said. “I used to throw sand out of the back of pickup trucks on snowy days. Now, we have sand trucks. We have seven plow trucks now, and back then we only had three. We have more sidewalk plows now, too. I think we’re better off.”

The city has seen a number of changes to its infrastructure since Johnson started out, as well. Among them, he recalled that Perry Avenue has been elongated to better accommodate businesses and the Baldwin Street bridge has been rebuilt since an ice cream truck crashed through it in the ’60s.

Overall, Johnson said he is pleased to see the city grow and staffers work to maintain the quality of its roads.

“We’re getting a little more money from the gas tax and that helps a lot. For a long time, we didn’t have much money at all in Big Rapids to do maintenance stuff and it’s doing a lot better now. We have a six-year plan, which makes things more organized,” Johnson said. “I think we’re doing pretty good.”

Even in retirement, Johnson said, he won’t be too far away. A resident of Rodney, he was recently re-elected to a six-year term on the Mecosta County Road Commission. He enjoys hunting in Mecosta County with his son Jeff, and being in Michigan allows him to take frequent trips to Michigan International Speedway, in Brooklyn, to watch his beloved NASCAR.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to step away too far. After 44 years in this place, I feel like I have a lot invested,” he said.

Johnson’s successor will be the current interim street superintendent and longtime city employee Jake Walston.

A goodbye party, which is open to the public, is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon on Dec. 20, at the Big Rapids Department of Public Safety building, 435 N. Michigan Ave.

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