Easin' on down the road
For 42 years now, John Okeson has been keeping the roads of Becker County safe for drivers and pedestrians alike.
But on Thursday, the Becker County highway superintendent will be easing on down the road into retirement -- at least from his duties for the county.
"I've been here long enough," said Okeson on Tuesday. "I think it's just time... I want to do a few other things."
Things like operating the consulting service that he began three years ago, providing road maintenance support for townships and private industries, or teaching classes in gravel maintenance for the University of Minnesota's Local Transportation Assistance Program (LTAP).
Okeson also plans to spend a little more time on his hobbies, which include riding his motorcycle, bowhunting, fishing and pretty much any other sport that can be enjoyed outdoors.
"I enjoy the lake life," he added, referring to his home on Lake Sallie south of Detroit Lakes.
He also hinted that he might be contemplating an election run, for county commissioner.
"I've had a lot of people approach me that would like to see me run," he said, but was quick to add that he had not yet made a decision on whether to throw his hat in the ring.
For the time being, however, he has no plans to give up his seat on the Lakeview Township Board of Supervisors, to which he was just re-elected this spring for another three-year term.
"I've been on the township board about 20 years," he said.
Though no longer married, Okeson said he'll enjoy spending more time with his family, which includes son Christopher, who lives in the DL area with his wife and three kids; and daughter Gwen Lybeck, who lives in Brainerd with her two children.
"I have five granddaughters between ages 8-16," Okeson said.
While he's ready to retire, Okeson admitted there are some things he'll miss about working for the county.
"I'll miss the people," he said. "I enjoyed coming to work every day to see the people here."
Okeson also enjoyed the diversity of his job, which has included working in maintenance, construction, surveying and engineering. (He became the highway superintendent in 1975.)
But Okeson won't miss getting up at 4:30 a.m. every morning -- and sometimes, even earlier -- which he's had to do every weekday for the past 40-odd years.
"I've worked for five county engineers," said Okeson, who first came to work for the county as a highway maintenance worker in June 1967.
After a brief eight-month stint with the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Morris, he came back to work for the county in September 1968 -- "and I've been here ever since."
Over the past four decades, Okeson said he's noticed that the pressure to keep the county's roads in tip-top shape has increased dramatically.
"It used to be nothing to not get the roads open for three or four days," he said. "Now we're looking at how we can get them open in six hours.
"Driving habits have really changed," he said. "Fifteen years ago I hardly met a car on the road at 3 a.m. -- now you see a lot of them. So many places are open 24 hours a day, with continuous shift changes.
"We need to keep the roads clear to serve the traveling public 24 hours a day."
Okeson said he's used to having to carry at least one cell phone around at all times -- which is another thing he won't miss.
"I've been on 24/7 call most of the year," he said.
"In the wintertime, I'd be up at all hours, checking the weather."
Most of the time, Okeson said, he would try to handle the problem itself, whether it involved getting out a snowplow or a chainsaw to clear the roads.
His boss, County Highway Engineer Brad Wentz, confirmed that fact.
"John was always there -- late nights, weekends he was always available and he had a lot of dedication for us, taking care of the maintenance of the roads for the county," Wentz said. "He did a great job, and he will be missed by all of us."