Monday, March 10, 2014
AUGUSTA -- Other than his Navy service, and a summer on a survey crew for the state transportation department when he was fresh out of Cony High School, Augusta Public Works is the only place John Charest ever worked.
Matt Jackson sweeps up around the newly installed granite sign at the public works facility on North Street in Augusta. Charest will be retiring soon from his long career working for the city.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
It's a job he loved.
And still loves, after 42 years.
If it weren't for his current battle against cancer, the 64-year-old would still be working for the city as director of public works.
"I loved this job from day one, I say that honestly," the affable Charest said recently in his office overlooking the Augusta Public Works complex off North Street. "If my health was better, I'd like to have stayed another two or three years. But I just can't physically do it anymore."
That may be because for Charest, being director means putting in the same long hours as his laborers and drivers during snowstorms and major projects.
"If the crew was here plowing, no matter how many hours, he was right here too, all through the night," said foreman Bug Cram, who's worked with Charest for some 32 years. "He worked with the belief if there was a crew here, a tired crew, he was going to be tired too. He's a great guy, with a strong work ethic. John has always instilled that. He's been a great leader."
Among the marathon work sessions was the ice storm of 1998, during which public works crews, and Charest, worked five straight days and nights without going home.
Charest, an Augusta native and resident, initially didn't want the director's job, preferring to remain out in the field as general foreman, rather than take the more office-oriented post.
His first city job, while in high school, was digging graves by hand. He later manned a garbage truck, among other things, before joining the Navy.
Charest both served in Vietnam and learned how to operate heavy equipment while in the Seabees. He left the Navy in 1969, on a Thursday, and was working as an equipment operator for Augusta Public Works the following Tuesday.
He's been there ever since.
He agreed to serve as interim director in 1982, when former director Elmer Degon retired. After a year as interim, Charest relented to pressure from Paul Poulin, then city manager, and agreed to assume the job he's had ever since.
"You won't find a person more dedicated to the city, or his work," said Lesley Jones, director of solid waste for the city, who's worked with him for 24 years and will take on the bulk of his responsibilities. "We don't know public works without John. He has been our rock, who we've depended on. It's going to be a big adjustment to do this without him. We always think 'What would John do?'"
Charest said the decision to retire was difficult, but making it felt like a weight was lifted from his shoulders.
Charest said it didn't bother him to not be involved in the first snowstorm of the season last week, though he did call Jones to see how the plowing was going, and came by the public works garage for a brief visit.
"I woke up and saw it was snowing," Charest said of the recent storm that brought out the plows. "I really thought it would bother me, but it didn't."
At least something of Charest, however, will always be outside the pubic works complex -- his name. In response to a petition begun by public works employees, the city is expected to name the public works complex after him. The City Council will consider formally naming the facility after Charest at their meeting Thursday.
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click image to enlarge
This July 1999 file photo shows John Charest, Augustaâs public works director, watching the breach of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River from the damâs block house in Augusta.
Staff file photo by Andy Molloy