By Clare Kolenda
It’s 3:30 a.m. and the sun has a good four hours before it will rise. At this hour, you wouldn’t expect anyone to be starting their day. Yet Harry Longon has already gotten his cup of coffee at the local Speedway and is ready to start his day taking care of the streets of Albion.
In the early hours of the morning, Longon’s office is his 2006 Chevy pickup truck. It conveniently has a large flat console, enabling the Superintendent of Albion Public Works to take notes as he drives. A large roll of caution tape balances in the corner, the perfect holder for his to-go cup of coffee.
Longon still sports a slight Cajun accent and his no-nonsense demeanor that speaks to his years of experience. His easy smile shows his continued enjoyment of the job. While originally from New Iberia, La., he’s lived in Michigan for almost 30 years. It’s long enough for him to be able to withstand the cold and harsh Michigan winters with just a light jacket, but not long enough to rid him entirely of his Southern roots. Regardless of whether you are the City Manager of Albion or a resident down the road, Longon will greet you with the honest look in his eye and a welcoming greeting on his lips that is characteristic of one who has lived in the south.
Though there is nothing in his job description entailing that he start his day so early, Longon prefers the quiet. It’s a time where he can think, where his phone isn’t ringing with residents calling in projects, or one of the nine employees that work under him asking for his advice. It’s just him roaming the streets of the city that he’s helped take care of for the past 27 years.
After the oil business market fell in Louisiana during the mid-1980s, Longon and his wife moved to Michigan in search of work. He started working as a mechanic with the streets department, and has done every job at the department before being promoted a few years ago to superintendent.
On a normal day for Longon, anything can happen. Though he starts his shift so early in the morning, he still remains at the office until at least 3:30 p.m when his men leave, but often stays even later. The projects, he says, are “never-ending around here. It’s one of those things; it’s like a surprise to me.”
And the past few seasons have been full of surprises. Through the toughest conditions of last winter, the team was working 60 hours a week in order to keep the roads clear and safe to drive on. Over the summer, Longon and his team used over five hundred tons of asphalt in order to fix the roads.
We laid down more asphalt this year [than in any other year] in the history of the department,” he said
Work beyond the streets
As the Superintendent of Public Works, Longon’s role is vital to the city of Albion, though much of his work is done behind the scenes. His role is assigning jobs to his team, and managing the work that is done both on and off the streets. He attends meetings with other public officials on a monthly basis, establishing procedures and contracts, while working with other departments such as Public Utilities to ensure that the needs of the residents of Albion are taken care of.
Longon’s role isn’t confined to the streets, either. It’s his job to draw up budget proposals for each of the four different units within public works – parks and recreation, lighting, and the cemetery division to name a few – as well as distribute the funds amongst all of their needs.
He oversees every single park in Albion, cares for the cemetery, works behind the scenes during local festivals and is even involved in decorating downtown during the holiday season. And that’s before the snow comes.
In the early hours of the morning, while college students are either sleeping comfortably or frantically studying, Longon is driving around the campus, picking up traffic cones and broken tree limbs in the street, and contemplating the best ways to keep the roads free of leaves.
Longon is also heavily involved in volunteering at the election polls on election days, and until recently, served in the union for city workers, meeting at City Hall to negotiate everything from contracts to insurance policies.
“I do care about this city. I like to see other things happen than just the streets get fixed,” he said.
Both a weather man and a history buff
As a resident of Albion, he’s invested in more than just its repair, but also in its growth. Whether his day is spent helping patch up the roads with asphalt, or bent over crunching numbers in budget meetings at City Hall, he does it because he cares about his job, the city, and the people of Albion.
Over the years, he’s learned how to be flexible. The weather plays an important part in the day-to-day operations. If it’s sunny, the projects for his guys revolve around patching up the worst of the potholes in the streets. When the rain comes, the team works on repairing bent road signs and doing odd jobs around the city.
“That’s the other thing,” Longon said about his job. “You almost have to be a weather man too.”
No matter what the weather brings, Longon considers it vital to have firsthand knowledge of what needs to be done. That’s what calls him to wake up before the break of dawn and drive around the area, jotting down notes of specific streets that have potholes, tree limbs that are broken down, or the occasional bent street sign.
“I know this place like the back of my hand,” he said, while pulling down yet another side street that you wouldn’t be able to point out on a map.
His knowledge about the streets of Albion is as extensive as his familiarity with the city’s history. He can tell what streets were named after what family, what stores have opened and closed over the years, and fun facts that you won’t find in your average guide book.
“I just pay attention,” Longon said. “Listen to people. I am fascinated with history.”
Finding potholes in the dark
As he drives, he is more alert to his surroundings. In the dark of the early morning, he isn’t able to just rely on his sight to point out potential problems and projects. While driving through a neighborhood, the average resident wouldn’t be able to distinguish the small bumps in the road from the cracks that are just waiting to burst open as a pothole. But Longon can. “If I can’t see it, I’ll feel it,” he said.
Driving down a bumpy road, he’ll suddenly stop his truck, put it in reverse and drive over the same spot again. He’ll repeat this practice several times before pulling out his flashlight to reveal a spot that needs patching. Then, shining the flashlight on the nearest house, he’ll jot down the street address and add the information to an ever-growing list of projects he’ll assign to one of his crew.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to serving the people of Albion.
The best part of his job, Longon says, “is to see what I do make others happy. It’s a good feeling to see something that I do and to see others be happy about it. To know what I do brings joy to others.”
His morning route concludes as he turns down one final road. Pulling his pickup back into his designated spot in front of the office, Longon settles in to do some paper and prepares to greet his guys as they wander in the office as soon as 6:30 a.m. And while his team prepares to start their shift at 7:00, Longon sits down for a well-deserved break.