During the last snow storm, the man behind the wheel of a truck sanding Oak Harbor streets was one of the top officials at the city.
Rich Tyhuis has been with the city for 44 years and supervises about 25 people as operations manager of the streets, water and facilities department, a surprisingly complex and increasingly technical part of public works.
Yet he didn’t hesitate to help out on the streets to relieve his employees, who are the behind-the-scenes people tasked with responding anytime of day that a storm hits, streets flood, trees fall, cars crash, signs come down or any number of disasters occur.
Tyhuis said he lends a hand in the “trenches” and works long hours in emergencies because he cares about the community and his people.
“We’re kind of a big family here,” he said. “We’re out of the way, not in the spotlight. It’s about who’s the next man up.”
The dynamics of the public works family is about to change as Tyhuis is retiring Friday.
Sandra Place, the purchasing and contract coordinator, said members of the public who know Tyhuis are welcome to attend an open house retirement party at 2:30 p.m. that day.
Place’s desk is just outside Tyhuis’ office and she’s worked with him for 22 years, so she has a very good idea how valuable he is to the city and how hard he will be to replace.
“He’s the one they come to talk to,” she said. “He’s the go-to guy. We’re losing 44 years of institutional knowledge.”
Rick Fakkema, the lead in the streets department, agreed.
“It’s all right there in his noggin,” he said.
Fakkema, who’s known Tyhuis all his life, describes him as outgoing and “a bunny that keeps going and going.”
“He does everything public works does plus everything else,” he said.
Tyhuis’ roots are deep on North Whidbey. He was born in a maternity home in Oak Harbor and lived his entire life here. His father lived for about 80 years on a former dairy farm near the Blue Fox Drive-In.
Tyhuis worked as summer help at the city’s public works department when he was a junior in high school. After he graduated, he realized he wanted to return and made a habit of asking Ed Boonstra, the public works director at the time, every week if a job was available.
Finally, there was a job. Tyhuis started in April of 1976.
“In those days you started with the garbage truck,” he said. “You always started with the garbage truck.”
In the days before curbside service, the garbage workers often had to walk into people’s backyards and retrieve garbage cans. Every can was emptied by hand.
Tyhuis did the physically demanding work for more than five years. The worst thing to happen, he said, was when his foot was run over by a garbage truck. But it wasn’t so bad, he said.
After that, Tyhuis became a general utility worker in the department, which he loved. One week he would work in the city’s sewage treatment plant, the next he might be digging water lines, patching streets, mowing, reading water meters, painting road stripes or any number of projects. The department of 15 people had few separations between jobs.
“You get to know everything around the city pretty quickly,” he said.
Of course, things were different and simpler in those days. When a giant icicle formed on the city’s water main underneath Deception Pass Bridge, for example, Tyhuis and another employee went over the edge with some rope and harnesses to knock the ice away.
That would never happen today.
Tyhuis became foreman on streets and water in 1989. He’s been operations manager of streets, water and facilities since 1996.
Tyhuis’ earlier days rotating through a range of different jobs has been useful experience as he’s managed a lean and busy department. Employees who are cross trained and maintain certifications are able to move into other jobs when the need arises, he said.
Public Works currently has 53 employees. The department had 43 in 1998, but eight of those positions were from the engineering department transferred from another office.
The department’s finances took a hit in the 1990s when the city stopped dedicating general fund money to it, he said.
City officials aren’t planning on replacing Tyhuis at this point but will divide his duties among other employees.
Still, Tyhuis said he’s very comfortable leaving. The department, he said, is being managed well and the employees are amazing. He said he’s proud that his staff cares so much about customer service and work so well together.
Tyhuis said he’s not exactly sure what he’s going to do after Friday. He hopes to help his mother with the family farm, work on his wife’s to-do list and then maybe look for community service opportunities.