The Dean Retires
July 16, 2009 10:58 AM
Today is City Engineer Larry Nelson's birthday and his last day on the job. Larry is retiring after 43 years with the City of Madison. I've asked his second in command Rob Phillips to take over for Larry as acting City Engineer for the rest of the year. We expect to fill the job on a permanent basis in January after a nationwide search.
Larry doesn't leave big shoes to fill. He leaves a canyon. Larry is fond of saying that no one is indispensible and, of course, he's right, but his absence will severely test that theory.
Larry really played three roles. He was City Engineer, of course, and he did that job remarkably well. But he was also Team Leader for Public Works, which means he ran herd over the highly skilled and sometimes cantankerous group of managers that oversee a sprawling set of city responsibilities from the Water Utility to Metro. Streets Superintendant Al Schumacher has agreed to take over as Team Leader, and he'll do a great job.
But Larry's third and most important role was his unofficial designation as the dean of city managers. This is a role that can't be assigned by any mayor. It carries with it no formal title or office or any special pay. It's a position that is earned over the years due to an accumulation of respect that comes with showing (usually quiet) leadership in a variety of circumstances. When Larry Nelson spoke up in a meeting or at the Council, people listened and more often than not they came around to his point of view on the subject at hand. It seems to me that one of the reasons for that was that there was never any question about where Larry's loyalties were. He was first and foremost a City of Madison man. Whatever he did, right or wrong, he did it because he believed it was in the best long term interests of our city. And he was almost always right.
Larry will have many legacies, luckily many of them literally cast in concrete. He would tell you that one of things he's most excited about is the huge growth in bike trails and related facilities that he engineered over the years. But I'd say that Larry Nelson's greatest legacy is in the people he brought into city government and in the example he set for the rest of us. For a very, very long time into the future the standard of our actions will be: what's best for the city in the long run and what would Larry Nelson have done?
I suspect that you won't have seen the last of Larry Nelson. I've asked him if he might be available to pinch hit on special problems from time to time. But that's for another day. For today, on his birthday and his last day on this job, on behalf of all of us who work for the city or who live here, thank you Larry. You have made our city a better place.