Some people have jobs that continually place them in the public eye.
Others have jobs where they work in the background — stepping into the spotlight when needed — then slip back out.
John Gough, former Dickinson County engineer, is one of those people. He retired in July. He didn’t have much to say about the 12 years he worked in Dickinson County or his engineering career that lasted nearly 50 years, but others who worked with him said he was a great asset to the county.
“John just wanted to fade away into the clouds and be gone,” said Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman. “He’s a very humble person.”
Gough’s resume speaks for itself: 30 years working for local government entities in Kansas, six years with the Kansas Department of Transportation; a consultant where he received a “broad education” in construction; a surveyor on the ground; an inspector; worked for an architect; and other tasks.
Gough came to Dickinson County in June 2007 for a job share position, serving as engineer for both Dickinson County and the city of Abilene. Five and a half years later, Abilene leaders decided they no longer needed his services.
“We had to make the decision whether to hire him full time. We got to thinking about it and all the engineering costs we had been incurring hiring other people to do it and thought we could use him full time,” said retired County Commissioner LaVerne Myers. “It was a great decision on our part. He contributed in so many ways to things we didn’t even think about.
“I have great respect for John, not only as a person but for his knowledge, his judgment, his personality. He could get along with about everybody,” Myers added.
Back in July, commissioners said Gough’s contributions to the county far exceeded the salary paid for his services.
During his time with Dickinson County and short time with the city of Abilene, Gough said he obtained more than $20 million in outside funding, including: $5 million for airport improvements; $2 million for widening Old 40 Highway from Chapman to Solomon; $2 million for Kansas Highway 15 connecting link paving through Abilene; numerous Kansas Department of Transportation bridges, including an experimental heavy duty bridge that was 100 percent funded), grants for 17 fish passage bridges and provided in-house knowledge about how to proceed on the jail/courthouse remodel, including interpreting construction documents.
Homman and Myers both said Gough has a unique ability to talk to people, possessing the ability to make difficult concepts understandable and a calm manner that diffuses tense situations.
That ability came in handy when the county got into trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for replacing a bridge west of Herington with a tube.
That bridge is in the habitat of the Topeka Shiner, a minnow less than three inches long, which is on the critical list of endangered species. Fish and Wildlife contended the corrugated tubes the county installed were not deep enough into the ground for the fish to swim through and they wouldn’t swim across corrugated tubes so the county needed to place natural silt or soil in the bottom of the tube.
Homman vividly remembers a confrontational session with fish and game attorneys in the courthouse basement meeting room.
“They made no bones about it and said ‘we’re going to give you so much time to remove that tube and lower it down by 12 inches or we’re going to file an injunction in court and make sure you don’t do it again’,” Homman recalled. “That left a sour taste in our mouths.”
“That was my very first meeting as a commissioner and we learned fish and game was going to sue us because we took a bridge out and put in a culvert,” Myers recalled with a chuckle. “We were really at odds with them, but John went to a meeting after we hired him and ended up getting a lot of grant money from them since that time.”
Soon after the incident, a fish and wildlife representative was in the county looking at a bridge for another matter and Gough talked to that person. That, in turn, resulted in a meeting between Gough and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent out of South Dakota who represented this region.
“During that meeting, John told him we want to do the right thing and we’re not the adversaries here. Next thing I know John comes into my office and says ‘how would you like to have some funding for about three bridges?’” Homman recalled. “We got to be pretty good friends with the guy from South Dakota. He’d come in every year and talk about our programs and before I knew it, we were getting grant funding.
“Every year he’d (South Dakota rep) call us and say ‘what have you got?’ We’d send it in, and lo and behold, they’d get approved,” he added. “It’s been very fruitful for us. John is very versed in dealing with people and knowing how to justify what we are asking for.”
Since 2013 Dickinson County has received grant funding for 17 “fish passage” bridges totaling $571,500. Fourteen of those are completed while three are scheduled to be done.
“We would have had to close a lot of roads in that area (southern part of county) if it hadn’t been for this (fish passage grants),” Myers said. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford to build that many bridges ourselves.”
Dividing the county into quarters
Gough’s most visible assignment has been with the countywide pavement improvement program, which started over 10 years ago. The program targets a specific area of the county each year where roadwork will be completed.
“You can’t do all the work in just one area, so right now we have a paving program that moves around the county in quarters. So every four years we’re back to do some paving,” Gough said.
He appreciates current and past county commissioners and Homman who understood the need and supported the program, Road and Bridge Supervisor Martin Tannahill for implementing education, training and action to achieve the quality results now occurring and road and bridge personnel for their many hours of hard work.
“Today, Dickinson County roads are the envy of many surrounding counties,” Gough said, explaining the success is a “team effort.”
The county’s bridge replacement program works differently. Fish passage money pays for bridge replacement in about a third of the county, while the county funds bridge projects in other parts.
“We take what money we have in the budget for the structures and what money we get for fish passage bridges and try to see to it that everybody gets something sometime,” Gough said.
However, if an emergency presents itself — like bridges that were damaged by flooding this spring — the repair project takes precedence.
“No matter how well we lay out our plans in advance, those emergencies take money so you take something out and put the emergency project in,” Gough said.
Road and bridge projects got a needed boost in 2014 when voters approved a half-cent sales tax that can only be used to finance roads and bridges. The sales tax comes up for renewal on the November ballot.
Gough’s knowledge recently saved a number of county residents from having to buy flood insurance. A year or so ago, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) contracted with a private engineering firm to do a federal flood zone study, updating flood plain maps, identifying who pays flood insurance based on where development will be.
The first maps had half the city of Solomon in the flood plain, including areas that had never flooded even in the deluge years of 1973 and 1993. The study was done under newly developed standards, created in response to the many recent nationwide floods.
“This means 25 percent larger ‘design’ rainstorms and other parameters which resulted in increasing the area paying flood insurance,” Gough said.
“John and I had some conversations about the mapping models. I said ‘I don’t know what the recourse is, but this is stupid’,” Homman said.
Gough said the only way to fight was to show evidence that the models were wrong and came up with the idea to hold a public meeting.
“I told the Solomon city clerk ‘let’s use the expertise of our county engineer. He’s probably the closest thing we’ve got to an expert when it comes to flooding and water’,” Homman said.
Residents were asked to attend the meeting, bring along their memories and any photos they had of previous flooding. Somewhere between 30 and 40 people attended.
The pictures were scanned, data was compiled and Gough correlated information into a report that was submitted to the agency.
“They said ‘you can’t argue with history.’ They took that evidence and redid the modeling for the flooding,” Homman said. “This is one of the first times that anybody could argue or dispute what FEMA was putting out and they listened. And it was because of what John did and how he lead us down the path to compile that data. John’s participation in that was priceless.”
“Talking to people is one of John’s virtues,” Homman said.
Gough said that was a skill he learned from his parents.
“My dad was in the engineering field, but my mother was a social worker. She rounded off a lot of rough edges and taught me to negotiate,” Gough said.
“I’d say to the one person, ‘what do you want?’ and then say the same to the other. Then try to figure out a way that mostly satisfied both of them,” Gough said. “Maybe they both went away a little bit unhappy, but not a lot unhappy. You have to find that place in the middle somewhere.”
Gough said his goal has been to recommend the best engineering practices be implemented for the benefit of all.
“Sometimes this was in opposition to what some individual coveted. Sometimes this was in opposition to a widely held myth,” Gough said. “I tried hard to provide quality information, especially during conflicts, to any side of an issue.
“We work hard finding and identifying the truth to decision makers — and you cannot give decision makers just one side of the story,” Gough emphasized. “They have to hear the part they don’t want to hear so they don’t have the surprise later on.”
After years of work, Gough said he and his wife Jean purchased a travel trailer and are seeing the sites. They were going to visit several music festivals and John said they want to see places like Yellowstone.
Spending time with family also is high on the “to do” list. The Goughs have three children: Son Jason and his wife Michelle live in Florida; daughter Jill Hertzelle and her husband Wendell live in Wichita with their son Benjamin; and youngest daughter Jana Johnson and her husband Garrett of Kansas City are expecting their first child. The Goughs also have a huge extended family.
“I’m 70 years old and you never know what your health is going to do. My wife and I are both healthy and we’ve worked at helping others so maybe it’s time we have a little time for ourselves,” he said.
As for his time in Dickinson County, Gough said he enjoyed interacting with the township officers and he hopes the county can raise Road and Bridge wages to keep existing workers and fund additional workers.
“There is much still needing attention,” he said. “And I hope, as I retire, that Dickinson County is an improved place in which people live and work.”
Contact Kathy Hageman at firstname.lastname@example.org.