The icing on the cake: Lowell Patterson

Editor's Note: The May issue's Member Profile features Lowell Patterson, Director of Public Works, City of Columbia, Missouri; APWA Accreditation Council Chair; former member of APWA's Government Affairs, Congress Program Review and Solid Waste Management Committees; and Missouri Chapter Past President.

How did you get involved in public works? It really was an accident. I doubt that any of us really grew up dreaming about working in sewers or refuse all of our life, but after I graduated from college I took a job in the Corps of Engineers in Memphis, Tennessee. I was there about two years when I was contacted by city council members from West Plains, Missouri, my hometown, and they had asked me to come back and be the City Engineer for the community. I don't think I really knew what public works was, but it was an opportunity to move back to my hometown. So I became the City Engineer and Superintendent of Utilities, and later on, when the position was created, the Director of Public Works. I was hired as the Public Works Director for the City of Columbia in 1986 and I've been here ever since.

Education: I grew up and attended high school in West Plains and I graduated from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering.

Favorite Book: You probably couldn't guess what it is, but it's Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The first time I read it was in 1957 right after it came out. The concept of it is basically what happens to our society when those individuals who really make things happen—the ones who build the factories, the transportation systems, who basically get things done—decide one day that they're going to quit. It's very thought-provoking.

Hobbies/Interests: You mean, other than indulging in some self-humiliation on the golf course? I like to read and I enjoy photography. I like to play around restoring furniture. My wife may have a different opinion of my skills, but I enjoy cooking, too.

Role Model: That's easy, it's my father. He was really special. His mother died when he was a baby and his dad took him out of school in the eighth grade to help cut timber for the saw mills, so he never had a chance at any formal education. He worked hard all his life to make sure that we had the home and family that he never had. He lived by three rules: You don't lie, you don't steal, and you always pay your debts.

They sound like good rules to me. Yeah, I just hope my kids can always think that way of me.

Career Accomplishments: You know, I really look back over my career and I don't see it marked by accomplishments as much as it has been by a series of events that have been pretty interesting at times. A lot of them have been that once-in-a-lifetime event which means that you'd never want to have to go through it again. But when it was over it tended to turn out pretty good.

We had an example of that in 1978 in West Plains when our eighty-acre sewer lagoon disappeared overnight into a sinkhole. Well, we had the environmental issues to deal with, but we designed and built a wastewater treatment plant in eighteen months using a federal grant. I think the astounding thing about it was that the federal government moved that fast [laughs]. But we were able to do all of that in eighteen months.

Another memorable experience was when we were building wastewater wetland units down in the Missouri River bottoms during the 1993 and 1995 floods. That was also quite a challenge.

The one thing that gives me the most pride was when our department received its national accreditation, because that was a recognition of all the staff who have accomplished the things we've done over the years.

But really, I've just been lucky. I've been fortunate enough to be in places where things were happening and to be around people who really cared about what they were doing.

Tell us more about Columbia's Public Works Department: Well, it's obviously a pretty diverse agency. We've got responsibility for street and sidewalk construction and maintenance. We've got the solid waste collection and disposal, plus probably one of the most comprehensive recycling programs around. We're also in charge of engineering, contract administration, public buildings, building code and zoning enforcement, fleet operations and maintenance, the public parking systems, wastewater collection and treatment, stormwater enforcement, the public transit system, and even the regional airport. That's about eleven operating divisions with forty different work groups and over three hundred twenty employees.

Everything runs pretty good, because we have exceptionally good people everywhere in all our levels of operation. And for the most part I had enough sense just to stay out of the way and let them do their job.

During my time at MU, I always thought the streets, sidewalks and everything else in Columbia looked terrific. Nothing's ever perfect, but Columbia is a very demanding city in that respect. They set very high requirements for quality-of-life items. On the other hand, they'll support you in order to make that possible. It's just been a tremendous experience for me, and I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to serve here for nineteen years.

You are currently the chair of APWA's Accreditation Council. What are some benefits for agencies to go through the accreditation process? Whether an agency actually seeks accreditation or not, the APWA Self Assessment Program is probably one of the best management tools available to anyone. I've always considered it an opportunity to compare an agency's practices and procedures to model practices and techniques that are proven to work. But it also introduces agencies to other organizations and agencies that have experienced the same challenges, and they have developed solutions that worked and wanted to share them.

There's another side of it that's very important, though, and that is it's a great reinforcement tool to show your employees the things they do really well. I've always felt the accreditation part was like the icing on the cake because it's a recognition of the efforts of the employees. But the real value is the self assessment portion of it, whether accreditation ends up as a result or not.

I understand that you're retiring in May. What are some of your retirement plans? Actually, the eleventh of May is my last day on the job. I can tell you what I don't plan to do: I don't plan to leave APWA. I plan to stay as active as I possibly can for as long as there's something I can contribute to the organization. And while I'm retiring from the City of Columbia, I guess I'm looking at that more as a transition than an ending. I would expect I'll be doing something associated with public works in the not-too-far future.

But as far as my retirement plans...people ask me that and I tell them that I really don't know what it's going to be. But I can't wait to get started on it.

Sounds like more golf might be in store for you. Well, the problem with that is, if I play too much golf then I won't have the excuse I use now for being so bad, which is that I don't play enough golf.

Lowell, you may have noticed that this final question is the last one that I always ask all our profile participants... and you probably always get the same answer [laughs].

Well, a lot of times it does come down to the networking and education, but I'd like your take on it too. Why do you like being a member of APWA? Well, that's it, really. It provides me the opportunity to be with the greatest people in the world. That's the members and staff of APWA. We do have a great organization. I've benefited on a personal and professional level from my friendships and associations, and that's pretty significant.

You know, a lot of us who have been around long enough can recall some pretty rocky years for APWA, both financially and in terms of our very structure. But it survived, and I think it all comes down to that, in the end, the organization has always remembered that its only reason for its existence is its members. And what's really impressive is that when you consider the wide range of interests and responsibilities of this membership, and the challenges that APWA faces in trying to meet all of those challenges, I think it's pretty remarkable.

I guess it's not a question of whether or not I like being a member. Quite frankly, I feel quite privileged to be a member of APWA.