Earlier this month, Summit County government recognized 52 of its employees to celebrate service milestones to the county.
Many of those recognized on Wednesday, April 2 were in the midst of celebrating their 10-, 20- or even 35-year anniversaries with the county, but one man’s milestone stood out as being just a little more special than the rest.
Known for his generous heart, fair mindedness and a dry sense of humor, John Polhemus, director of Summit County Road & Bridge, started his career on Oct. 15, 1973, as a heavy equipment operator. Last October marked his 40th anniversary with Summit County Road & Bridge.
“JP cares greatly for this community, which he has lived in all his life, and I admire him for always thinking of the citizens and taxpayers in the decisions he makes,” said Road & Bridge administrative assistant Marsha Miller. “JP is fair-minded, always willing to help, and brings a sense of humor to the workplace that makes it a truly enjoyable environment.”
Last week, Polhemus displayed some of that dry wit when he discussed the changes he’s seen in Summit County, not just during his career, but since moving to Old Dillon in the 1950s from Colorado Springs.
“It was such a different county 20 years ago, let alone 50 when we moved here,” Polhemus said about the changing culture. “I can remember a time, even as a snowplow driver, when people would wave at you with all five fingers.”
One of five children, Polhemus’ dad died when he was a kid and his mom remarried a Summit County man, prompting the move north and west to the High Country.
Polhemus attended Summit High School, graduating in 1972 with about 25 classmates. A little more than a year later, he climbed behind the wheel of a snowplow in his first position with Road & Bridge. Since then, Polhemus has advanced to management positions serving first as interim department director in 1982 — he stayed on as assistant director — before being promoted in 1997 as director of Road & Bridge.
“In my mind, it feels like my first day was only yesterday, but my body tells a different story,” Polhemus said. “It’s definitely a lot more fun out there plowing snow than driving a desk, but it’s been a good career and I’m lucky to have enjoyed all the people I’ve met.”
Having lived almost his entire life in Summit County, Polhemus has obviously seen some changes. Professionally, he remembers when Road & Bridge maintained all of the town roads in Summit County except for Dillon, which had its own fleet of plow trucks, Polhemus said.
Today, Polhemus oversees an annual operating budget of about $4 million, manages a fleet consisting of six road graders, four loaders and seven snowplows/sand trucks, maintains 200 miles of roads — 80 miles of asphalt and 120 miles of gravel — and runs a team that consists of only four more full-time employees than when he started in 1973.
Although responsibilities have changed over the years, in addition to fluctuating with the summer construction season, Polhemus said the biggest difference between the Summit County of his youth compared to today is the population density in the wake of the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel project and the rise in popularity of the ski industry.
As the number of residents in the county has grown, so too has the number of complaints.
“It’s such a hustle, bustle world and there’s a big volume of people moving around, which presents a lot more challenges than in the old days,” Polhemus said. “It was a lot more peaceful because people understood we plow snow and that we don’t drive vacuum trucks.”
But when the demands from the public are at their highest, that’s when Polhemus’ famous sense of humor kicks in, serving as a constant reminder to his staff to celebrate the little things.
Even though it occupies a small chunk of his annual budget — and also is a felony — it’s difficult not to find the humor in the department giving up on replacing certain county road signs because they have a habit of disappearing, such as Stoner Drive.
“Just to be clear, we (Road & Bridge) didn’t pick the names of the roads, they were picked by somebody else,” Polhemus said. “There are a few more that probably aren’t clean enough for the paper and although those roads have numbers, we’ve given up on replacing the name signs because they don’t last long on the post.”
All kidding aside, after 40 years with one department, it wouldn’t be a shocker if Polhemus decided he was nearing the end of his career. Although he has a date in mind, it’s still a couple years away, which was good news to Summit County assistant manager Thad Noll.
“With JP at the helm, there’s never any question that we’re getting the most bang for our limited roadway dollars — which is no small task in our mountain environment — and he always takes on this important work with a big smile and a generous heart,” Noll said. “Summit County is lucky to have had the benefit of JP’s history, experience, knowledge and unparalleled dedication for the past 40 years.”