Tom O’Connell (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Tom O'Connell (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

BRATTLEBORO -- When Tom O'Connell decided to retire about six months ago, after working for the Brattleboro Department of Public Works for 44 years, he had no idea that his final night would be spent behind the wheel of his plow, clearing the roads in West Brattleboro.

Since 1970 O'Connell has been working for the town, all of the years in the Department of Public Works, and his last night on the job was spent just as so many other nights over the last four decades were spent.

"It's time for me," O'Connell said. "I've got some fishing I want to do."

"People don't know what a commitment it is," Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett said Friday before O'Connell's retirement supper. "We all go home at night but these guys have missed Christmases and events with their families. I'm sure Tom has missed at least one of every major holiday through all these years."

O'Connell was the most senior member of the department. When he was hired back in 1970, as a young 22-year-old road crew employee, O'Connell worked then with old timers in their 50s and 60s. Those men, Barrett said, worked the roads of Brattleboro when they were dirt paths and before there were snow plows, when snow rollers were used to compress heavy snow falls.

"He's taking a lot of knowledge and history with him," said Barrett. "He's a great guy. He's worked hard for this town his whole career."

O'Connell, who is nicknamed "Homer," has served in a number of different jobs over the years, acting as foreman and supervisor, before returning to equipment operator a few years ago where he has been working the big machines at DPW.

Winter Storm Pax was a particularly challenging storm to clean up, said Barrett. The first wave of snow, which started early Thursday and went through most of the night dumped about a foot on Brattleboro, and O'Connell and the rest of the crew were out plowing all day.

Then, at around 2 a.m. Friday, a second wave of snow started to fall and the crew was right back at it, clearing the roads in time for Friday morning commuters.

For the past few years O'Connell has been responsible for some of the toughest roads in West Brattleboro, including Bonnyvale Road and Stockwell Drive.

O'Connell's supervisor, Al Franklin, said he has not yet named a long term replacement for O'Connell.

"We always relied on Tom," Franklin said. "He always came to work."

After the roads were cleared Friday the crew sat down to bowls of venison stew and cake to say good-bye to Homer.

His wife Marie came out to the meal Friday and said she was not surprised when her husband told her a few months ago that it was time to retire. She joked that it was a good time to get out, with Skype telephone service now she did not want to be on any computer screen during those 2 a.m. phone calls.

She said through all of the years she and Tom have become close to the DPW workers and their families.

"We've gotten to know all of these guys and their families. This is not coming to an end," she said. "This is just a new leaf we're turning over. He's got his fishing boat and tractor at home. He's just going to be leaving his big toys in the town garage."