The office of Abilene Public Works Director Lon Schrader is a physical representation of his mind — from the baseball memorabilia to the stacks of projects to his wall of need-to-remember information.
Schrader spent 40 years serving his community through his duties in Public Works. Over the weekend, the Kansas League of Municipalities celebrated what those 40 years of work represent to local government.
Raised in the Abilene community, Schrader found himself jumping straight into working full-time with the Kansas Department of Transportation at 19 years old.
“In fact, it was long enough ago that I don’t even think they called it KDOT and they called it the state highway commission,” Schrader said.
Following his work with heavy machinery for KDOT, Schrader found himself working with a construction company, which allowed him to learn about dirt work. However, through a series of events, Schrader found himself out of work for a couple of weeks and knew he had to find some job to help support his growing family. An acquaintance pushed him to talk to Public Works Director at the time Glenn Rider. Schrader marched up to Rider’s truck window and asked him about a job.
“I laugh about that because you know, nowadays you have to go through all of this, but in my interview with Gleen Rider to go work for the city lasted about 30 seconds,” Schrader said. “He was down here (Public Works Office) leaving in the City Works pick up. I’d have walked up to the door of the pick up and talk to him for a few seconds and honestly, told him what I’d been doing which of course, fit right into some of the stuff they do here…Plus, he knew my parents, I think that probably what sealed the deal and so he pretty much asked me when I could start.”
At the young age of 24 years old, Schrader found himself starting a career that he honestly never thought would end with him sitting in the director’s seat. With 40 years under his belt, Schrader took a moment to think about the biggest changes public works has experienced over time.
“We have way better equipment and way better than what we had 40 years ago,” Schrader said. “But the jobs that we do are still basically the same. I mean you deal with the same problems that you had and I can’t sit here and tell you that the people have changed in general that much as far as how they affect us in public works.”
While the needs for water treatment, fixed roads and updated pipes haven’t changed through the years, Schrader did believe the invention of cellphones has created non-stop communication lines.
“Our cell phones, like mine and my plant operators, are directly hooked to the water and wastewater treatment plant, “ Schrader said. “When you have an alarm at the water treatment plan, it automatically dials our cell phones, so these guys are connected to it.”
“When they go home, they may not be done,” Schrader added.
While technology increased communication within Public Works, Schrader found his communication with the town has strengthened due to his background.
“I realized you develop your credibility and you develop a reputation and where I was born and raised in this community, it made me more accessible,” Schrader said. “If people know you or know who you are, they are comfortable talking to you.”
Schrader utilized his credibility with townspeople to talk to them directly when it came to projects in their area or when it was concerning them.
“I treat them the same as I would some high person, like someone who has a high political office,” Schrader said. “I really believe that I can talk to the governor or the president, the same way I talked to the person that lived out on the end of the block on the wrong side of the racks. I think you should respect those people and treat them the same way.”
In his time leading the public works department, Schrader tried to help his employees create the same credibility and accessibility with residents. Schrader also pointed out how lucky he is to have a partner who accepts that she shares him with the community, because his work calls himt to be accessible to all.
In the end, Schrader wanted to use his 40 years with the City of Abilene and experience of leading the Public Works team to share some advice on being a good leader.
“In general to me, a good leader is somebody who makes good decisions,” Schrader said. “Plain and simple, you have to make good decisions. Doesn’t matter whether you’re leading a crew of workers or leading people into battle, you have to make good decisions…That’s such a general answer, because it covers making good decisions. It might be making the decision to treat people fairly or making a decision to be the kind of person that can be trusted.”