By Ralph Echtinaw
Mark Abbott’s worst day as St. Louis DPW superintendent came in 2009 when two employees were nearly killed.
The two men were in a DPW truck at the corner of M46 and Mill Street when a semi truck T-boned them in the passenger door and drove the Dodge truck all the way to McDonald’s.
“We had to airlift the kid to the hospital,” Abbott remembered. “I thought he was dead. I knew his dad. I was just terrified. They both lived. The old guy was busted up pretty good. But the kid came through and was walking that night. The semi hit right where his hip was. It was a miracle that he lived.”
Later on they examined the wrecked pickup. “It bent that truck just like a U,” Abbott said. “We measured it. We put a string across the corners of the truck and it was bent in four feet.”
Thank God that was the only near fatality during Abbott’s 22 years with St. Louis. And it will likely be the last on his watch, as he punches out for the last time on Friday, Aug. 13, with his official retirement coming on Aug. 16.
Although he’s only 61 years old and hoped to work until age 67, Abbott was advised to quit by his doctor a year and a half ago and is finally taking that advice.
“The stress, my heart and everything. I need to step out and let somebody else take over who’s younger,” he said. “I love what I do and think I’m good at it. But I just think it’s time. You just kind of know.
“My doctor told me a year and a half ago that I need to retire. And I was like, ‘I don’t want to retire.’ You think you’ve got to have a million dollars in the bank and this and that and all this stuff, and finally it just, well, it’s the time. Every day I’m just stressing, making sure everybody’s where they’re supposed to be and working and doing stuff. And it’s getting to when I get home I’m too tired to do my own stuff. I’m getting old.”
Abbott was the chief maintenance operator for the city of Lapeer in 1999 when he responded to a job opening in St. Louis and interviewed with former City Manager Dennis Collison. “I thought it was the worst interview I ever had,” he said. “I came out to the car and told the wife I’m not getting this job.”
Three weeks later he was hired and started working on July 6, 1999. It was tough at first because it took six months to sell his house in Imlay City, and he commuted from there to St. Louis; getting home at 8 p.m. and getting up at 4 a.m. to return.
One aspect of the job that Abbott changed has to do with street construction and repair. The city used to hire engineers to plan such projects, but Abbott started doing it himself.
Since then Abbott has been instrumental in the complete reconstruction of Michigan Avenue, Prospect, Maple, Corinth, North Main (from the bridge to Prospect), Olive, Hubbard, Croswell and West State streets.
In 2003 alone the DPW had 17 projects in addition to it being the city’s 150th birthday. That was his worst year, he said, followed closely by 2020.
“Last year, Covid, was a nightmare,” he said. That was the year of another major road reconstruction (Maple Street) where the contractor quit in the middle of the job on account of Covid fear. “It was on, and then the contractor said, ‘Our guys want to go home.’ So they quit, and then they decided they were gong to come back. All the guidelines with the state and the feds and stuff we had to try to figure out what was going on with. We put our guys on a split shift to where some worked some days and some worked other days so they wouldn’t overlap. And that way if somebody got sick we wouldn’t lose everybody. We had one guy come down with Covid and he was off for two weeks. But other than that we got through.”
There has been a great deal of turnover in the DPW during Abbott’s tenure with 16 full-time employees, 132 seasonal employees and “untold” temp workers walking through the door. He had to fire just two during that time. Most left for better situations or retirement.
“One guy I hired… Incredible. Love the guy. He was excellent, but he went to the county because they had a defined benefit retirement plan, and that’s what he wanted. He’s a foreman down there now making killer money. He makes more than I do.”
Asked to name his best employees, Abbott singled out St. Louis resident Ted Cline and Dave Giles. But he quickly added that his current crew of five is the “most talented bunch I’ve had as far as abilities.”
Abbott has been fortunate with city council, as well.
“I’ve had a lot of support from council,” he said. “When I first got here the equipment was really rough. And council listened to me when I told them I needed something. They gave me a chance and saw every time I asked for something it made a big improvement. So I haven’t had any trouble with council giving me what I need to do the job.
“I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without the support they’ve given me with budgets and getting equipment and hiring people. The council has been wonderful.”
He calls the current council “the calmest I’ve ever seen. You know how with most of them there’s a lot of wrestling going on. And this council has been the most unified city council I ever saw. There’s not been any fighting or bickering. They all kind of want the same thing. They just want to promote St. Louis and make it the best place to live as they can.
“We’ve had good mayors. I think that helps if you’ve got a mayor who’s for the city and not his own agenda. I think it’s been a good thing. It’s been unique for me. Just having a group of people with the same mindset and having decent guys for mayors. It’s made a big difference for St. Louis.
“The mindset has always been pro St. Louis. This isn’t kiss ass either. It’s my honest opinion.”
The feeling is reciprocated on city council. Mayor James Kelly said, “Mark Abbott has been a big part of the City of Saint Louis for over 20 years. Mark was in a position that would be easy to generate criticism, but he did such an outstanding job that it kept complaints away. He will be deeply missed by myself and the entire community. I wish him the very best in his retirement.”
Current councilman and former Mayor George Kubin had this to say: “Mark was always willing to try new and up-to-date techniques to solve old problems. This city looks good today because of Mark and his crew.”
Abbott’s boss, Public Services Director Keith Risdon, said this: “Mark has a wealth of experience which will be sorely missed by the city and especially me. Since I arrived here in 2015, Mark has been able to provide me with the historical background of the utilities and issues which we have here. While my role has been to oversee the different departments and guide the city into the future, Mark’s role has been more day-to-day and taking the overall planning and making it happen on a yearly basis. Together we have been able to accomplish a lot of things. I wish him well as he focuses on his health.”
Abbott speaks highly of Risdon as well. “Keith has been a fantastic boss.”
City Manager Kurt Giles now has the unenviable task of finding Abbott’s replacement.
“We will post the position internally to see if there is interest among current staff members,” he said. “Depending on that outcome, we will consider recruiting from outside the organization. Mark has had a vital role in many of the city’s accomplishments over the past 22 years. We thank him for his years of dedicated service and wish him well in his retirement.”
Abbott owns a house in Bethany Township where he lives with wife Karen. He expects to spend more time hunting, fishing, working on his Jeep and restoring a 1928 Ford.