Hinman retires as Public Works Director

May 17, 2013, will mark the official end of Don Hinman’s career with the City of Baker – a mere 12 days and 42 years after he started as a hard working 20 year old.


Don Hinman
Don Hinman

Posted April 26, 2013

By Lisa Kilsdonk

May 17, 2013, will mark the official end of Don Hinman’s career with the City of Baker – a mere 12 days and 42 years after he started as a hard working 20 year old.

“I was hired as a part-time temporary member of the patching crew for the summer. Come fall, they never told me to stop coming to work, so I didn’t,” Hinman recalled with a smile, going on to name all the big pieces of equipment he got to learn to operate in the months and years following. Sweepers, sanitation trucks, loaders, plows, blades, scrapers and backhoes – all the things needed to keep a little city’s public works working.

The worst winter Hinman recalled was the winter of 1978-79. A blizzard struck, and totally buried the city. The National Guard used Plevna as a base and brought supplies in and dropped hay bales for cattle. “We worked 24 hours a day it seemed like. On the first three days of the blizzard, my boss would come by and pick up the city crew guys in his four-wheel drive pickup. On the fourth day, I rode my snowmobile to work, and on the fifth day of the blizzard I drove the loader home from work to make sure I’d make it back the next day.” The snow was so deep that Baker residents actually rode snowmobiles over the top of Hardware Hank. Along streets when they plowed, the city guys had to probe for cars. “Once we got a little too close and ripped a door off a car. I was glad my boss was driving when that happened.”

Snow is definitely one thing Hinman has had enough of. “As long as it’s warm and I can read about snow instead of push it around, I’ll be happy,” said Hinman in reference to his retirement plans which include selling his Baker residence and heading south in a motorhome with his wife Sue.

For this interview, Hinman was seated behind what could only be described as a hands-on-working-man desk. No fancy computer, just a phone and a few stacks of paper, which represent the part of his job that has changed the most: paperwork. The public works director went from filling out one form a month to wading through piles of standards and compliance paperwork now required for today’s water and sewer. Paperwork and red tape might not be the part of the job he enjoyed the most, but based on the plaque modestly displayed on the wall behind his desk, he successfully figured out how to do all aspects of his job well. The plaque shows that Hinman was selected as the outstanding water and waste water public works manager for the year 2004.

“I got that award at a conference in Great Falls. I had not idea I was going to get it, but Sue knew. They gave it to me at the banquet in front of all the public works directors from the whole state,” Hinman explained, sounding a bit mortified than proud when he contemplated the crowd.

It was a different crowd that pleased Hinman in the position of Director of Public works for the City of Baker over 30 years ago. “A few years after I started working for the city, they made me the foreman of the crew. Back then there were 13 of us. Well, the director quit and the City Council came down to the shop and asked me to be the director. I looked around. There were two or three guys that had just been hired in the last six or eight months, and then there were nine or ten older guys. They all pointed at me. The City Council said that if I didn’t take the job they were going to bring in someone from the outside who none of us had worked with, so I said I would,” Hinman said. With the unexpected promotion came immediate pressure. Hinman had to study and be tested for his Class II license for Water and Waste Water Operations for the state. Off he went to a training seminar and three days later the class was complete, he’d taken the test and passed.

In his four decades with the City, Hinman has served under seven different mayors and mayors (along with the City Council members) are who public works directors answer to. “Mayor Kreager and I both started working for the city on the same day,” Hinman stated. Kreager was followed by Herb Varner, who was followed by Fred Williams. “Williams was a great mayor,” Hinman declared, perhaps arriving at that opinion based on the following mayor’s different style of leadership. “Mayor J.D. Kyle was retired, so he’d come down to the shop at 6:45 every morning. At 7:00, I’d make assignments telling which crews to go where and once they started out the door, he’d say, ‘Don, aren’t you going to do this?’ and I’d call them all back in.”

As if a little micro-managing didn’t make the job interesting enough, Hinman’s next mayor definitely made for an intriguing situation. “Dean Keirle worked for me while he was mayor. I’d go to a City Council meeting and make my recommendations, then they’d tell me to go ahead and do those things. The next morning, Dean would come to work and I’d send him out to do the stuff he told me to do the night before.”

Hinman’s next boss and Baker’s next mayor was Kelly Coldwell who was then followed by Clayton Hornung.

A few of Hinman’s biggest accomplishments on behalf of the city have included the purchase of a sewer jet to clean the sewer lines. “When we used it, chunks of pipe actually came out.” The sewer jet provided the proof positive they needed to replace several sewer lines. “I feel good leaving my job knowing that all the sewer lines are in good shape and we got the water lines slip-lined this past fall,” Hinman said with satisfaction.

One of the biggest challenges for Hinman in the past six or seven years has been turnover in his staff that now sits as six positions. “We’ve had some really good hands get hired away from us by oil companies. They didn’t even have to apply. The places just called them up and offered them jobs. The city pay scale just can’t compete.”

Another part of the smaller numbers is due to the technological advances with the equipment. It used to take two men running two sweepers to maintain the streets. Now it can be done with one sweeper that’s faster and does a better job. Even garbage collection, which used to be a two or three man job, only requires one person nowadays.

When the conversation turned to garbage collection, Hinman’s eyes got a twinkle in them. Apparently, there’s a bit more to his job than just keeping the clean water and the dirty water headed in opposite directions. “One day I got a phone call from a very calm, elderly lady asking me to come over and help settle a difference between her and her neighbor across the alley. I headed over and when I got there things weren’t too calm. The neighbor lady had trimmed her tree and set the branches next to the container in the caller lady’s yard. I said we’d have the guys come pick them up and that would take care of the situation, but the lady wouldn’t have it. She wanted me to make her neighbor lady pick up all those branches. She was going to teach her a lesson. She got so mad she grabbed a stick and went after her, and I had to stand between two 80 year old ladies,” Hinman reminisced with chuckles interrupting the retelling.

Another time Hinman received a call from one of his staff reporting there was a swing set in the container and that he’d better come take a look. He arrived to find a completely intact swing set with a single leg sitting in the garbage. He laughed at the homeowner’s moxie, removed the swing set leg and returned to the shop. A week later, the swing set’s leg was once again daintily placed in the container. Still laughing, Hinman paid a call to the swing set owner’s place of employment and informed him that his strategy wouldn’t work.

What did he love about the job? “It’s completely a challenge. Every day I learn something new,” Hinman admitted. He plans to keep on learning as he enjoys his retirement, but his learning will focus on things like what’s like to have a winter without snow (think Arizona) or what’s the best fifth wheel to purchase.

On behalf of the citizens of Baker, we wish you well, Don Hinman. Soak up some sunshine for all of us next winter!