Highway Superintendent Richard T. Othmer Jr. and the Town of Kent
Lori Lovely – PROFILE CORRESPONDENT - September 2022
For Richard T Othmer Jr., the road to becoming the town of Kent's highway superintendent began on Sept. 11, 2001.
He worked for the New York Fire Department from 1986 to 2007 and although he was off on that fateful day, what he saw when he returned to work the next day forever shaped him.
"It was a horrible time," he said. "I lost 55 people I worked with."
After a couple weeks "digging at the pile" of debris, he was pulled off that task for funeral detail. While it may have ultimately kept him healthy, it wasn't an easy job.
"There were still fires in other parts of the city," Richard said. "We couldn't have everyone at Ground Zero. But everything else was a blip on the radar screen. It was like a science fiction movie."
He stayed on at FDNY for another six years to help train the young guys joining the force.
"They brought life back," he said.
Still, he added, there were "too many memories" and a lot of the guys have since died of "9/11 cancer," so, after 21 years on the fire department, he left.
A Tortured Path
"I went back to the mason business," Richard said. He hadn't actually left it entirely; even while working 24-hour shifts as a fireman, he kept the mason business going. His father, a builder and master bricklayer, started the business after WWII. When Richard got out of the service, where he served in the U.S. Marine Corps aboard ship from 1974 to 1980, he joined the company.
"I had a knack for stonework," he said, "so my dad kept me working with the local Italian stonemasons."
Modestly, the former firefighter said he can do brickwork, but never rose to the level of his father, whom he considers a true master. In addition, because it's tough for a small mason business to function during the freezing winter months, as a newly married man, he resorted to a second job bartending and cooking in a local Irish Pub to make a living.
The bar's owner, who was a FDNY captain, encouraged him to take the fire department test. His high score earned him a spot in 1986. After retiring from the department, he ran for Putnam County legislator from Kent. He served two terms, the last as chairman — but soon discovered he didn't like politics. "The people are not honest." To this day, government rules remain his least favorite aspect of his job.
While politics wasn't a good fit for him, it prepared the lifetime resident of Putnam County for his role as highway superintendent. So did his six-year stint in the Marines.
His father signed him up at age 17. "It was the best thing I ever did," he said. "It straightened me out."
While stationed in the Middle East and Europe, Richard joked that "all the fighting I did was in bars."
He would bring that fighting spirit, as well as his military discipline and fire department work ethic, to the job of highway superintendent when he took over for retiring high school friend Tony Caravetta in 2014.
Running for highway superintendent wasn't a difficult decision. He was having trouble finding workers for the mason business and, as he said, "if you do anything too long, it gets boring."
Becoming highway superintendent was a lot harder.
"I had to learn from scratch," he said. He had a lot of work to do. "Tony was a good mechanic and welder, but he wouldn't fight the town board. He was too nice of a person."
Richard inherited a mess in 2014 when he took over. The building was dirty. There were holes in the roofs, rotted walls and rats. Furthermore, the department "was on the cusp of the 21st century." Kent was stuck in a time warp, he said, as it transitioned from a rural farm town into a commuter hub of New York City people moving north … and bringing their mindset with them.
It set Richard's agenda. Cleanliness is important to the former Marine. He began by cleaning the kitchen, scrubbing the refrigerator and bathrooms and emptying the trash. Later, he'd remodel the kitchen and add a locker room and bunk room, since the crew can spend as long as three days there during snowstorms. During those storms, he makes chili, soup or breakfast, like they did at the firehouse. "It brings everyone together. If the bosses care about them, the guys work better."
He showed his crew he cared by fighting with the town board to secure new equipment and facility upgrades. "In my opinion, the previous board treated my guys like second-class citizens," he said. "It was disgraceful."
It was one of many battles he'd wage against the town board. "My department is full of talent," he said. "I cannot say enough good things about my crew. If you put us on an island, we could build a small town within a year."
When Richard took office, the average age of his fleet was 24 years.
"During our first storm, we had six trucks out. It was like Junkyard Wars."
Discouraged by the lack of a fleet replacement program and a building that was falling down, he began updating the fleet. Today, he said, the department has a modern fleet. To maintain it, he instituted an extensive PM schedule for each vehicle, as well as a fleet replacement program.
As part of this modernization, he bought a truck at an army surplus auction.
"Our General Patton was a U.S. Army Freightliner all-wheel-drive tank retriever."
He uses it to haul trailers carrying their paver, excavator, winch and water tank for paving … and for parades. He also purchased a smaller truck now named the Col. Ludington after the father of 16-year-old Sybil, an American Revolutionary war hero who made an all-night ride through Putnam County to alert people that British forces were marching on Danbury, Conn., to burn it.
He also converted three one-ton Army trailers to use as beet juice/brine trailers. Like many highway departments, Kent sprays the roads with brine before snowstorms. However, for environmental reasons, since they're located in a New York City Department of Environmental Protection watershed, they switched to beet juice, which has de-icing qualities but deposits no salt into the wells and waterways.
"Rock salt is ruining wells and waterways," Richard said, "and it only works to certain temperatures [-6 F]."
They use a 50/50 mix of salt and sand, but then they have to sweep up the sand. "There are a lot of environmentalists in the area. Cornell University has a roads program that looks for alternatives."
The beet juice de-icing phenomenon was discovered in France during WWII. Richard said General Patton noticed the de-icing properties of beets on frozen fields. Today, the federal government uses it on military bases.
Richard gets his supply from the Carmel Highway Superintendent Mike Simone, with whom he grew up.
"I drove Mike crazy my first couple years in office, always asking for advice and direction."
Beet juice may turn the roads red temporarily, but he firmly believes it's the wave of the future.
Building for Success
During his first February as highway superintendent, Richard said the salt supply was set on Mafia Block with a canvas covering. "It collapsed, so we had an open pile the rest of the winter."
He discovered it was the third time it had happened. He also found out the town was supposed to build a building, but the board didn't get around to it. Richard addressed that by building a dome enclosure in 2015.
While the original main highway garage, built in 1968, is being reskinned — roof, siding, insulation — he added on to it so he could move his office out of the utility closet.
"We did the stone, concrete, block and brick work ourselves, which saved a lot of money."
In addition to the main office addition and salt dome with 1,400-ton capacity, they built a four-sectioned concrete material storage bin with a roof for stone, sand and millings.
There's also an auxiliary highway garage on the west side of town, built in 1937. This stone garage has a salt shed that holds an additional 300 tons, which crews need to keep the 216 lane mi. (16 of them dirt) and 14 bridges clear in the winter. Each of the 16 plow routes takes about 3-1/2 hours.
His crew is currently working on a new 180 x 40 building to get more trucks under cover. They did the site work, dug the footings and constructed a 500 by 15 by 8 ft. concrete block retaining wall. He expects it to be completed by the end of 2022.
Right People for the Job
In addition to working on the new lean-to, Richard's crew also is working on a major bridge replacement of a 1930-era bridge/dam on Lake Louise.
To accomplish all this work, Richard relies on a sizeable crew of 28 full-time employees and four part-time seasonal laborers. Staff includes:
- Angela Verity, payroll clerk/office manager;
- Herbert (Lewie) Strickland, general foreman and right-hand man;
- Robert Schaniel Jr., crew chief;
- Sean Daly, crew chief;
- Nick Mancuso, municipal repairs manager;
- Fred Verity, lead automotive mechanic;
- Jaclyn LoPiccolo, municipal repairs secretary;
- Six construction equipment operators;
- Nine motor equipment operators;
- One structural welder/MEO; and
- One laborer.
Six of the employees technically work for the town board — repairing police cars and other vehicles — but follow the highway department's schedule and work in their buildings Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with the rest of the crew. They fall under highway command during storms.
"Angela Verity runs my office and does a great job monitoring my budget, letting me know what I can and cannot do," Richard said. "She saves the town thousands every year," unbeknownst to the board. So does Nick Mancuso, who Richard said, "could find a part for a flying saucer if one landed here."
Assembling a good crew is another of Richard's accomplishments during his tenure. Approximately 50 percent of his workforce is new.
"I had some negative, miserable guys, but they're gone now." He said that he "cleaned house" through retirements, unable to simply fire people because they're unionized. Instead, he put them where they were the most effective until they retired.
Since he knows a lot of the local contractors, he's been able to hire some talented workers.
"It's like putting together a baseball team," he said. "I've got some experienced guys in their 50s, but I've also got a young welder and several younger, motivated MEOs. I can't have everyone retiring at the same time, so I have the older guys train the young guys."
Today, he said his crew is "first rate — a balance of talent, young and old, with a lot of ‘spirit de corps.'"
Together, they have completed a number of projects, including updating the main office, installing the new salt shed and materials bins, building the fieldstone office extension, repairing or replacing 10 bridge culverts in the NYCDEP watershed, and updating the fleet.
Richard counts on their expertise. "I'm not a mechanic or machine operator," he said. "My job is to get the proper machinery and get good operators."
When he's considering purchasing new equipment, he sends some of his crew to look at it and give their opinions since they know what they're looking at.
Other work Richard and his team have completed consists of several box culverts. In fact, he said his best day on the job was when they completed their first major box culvert in the NYCDEP watershed. "I like big jobs," he added. "Completing a bridge/culvert job is very satisfying."
It's even more satisfying when he can save the town some of their $4.2 million budget (plus $441,770.38 CHIPS and bonding). Initially, he had intended to contract out this work, but when he got quotes priced at $800,000, he decided to put his crew to the test. "We did them ourselves for $125,000 to $130,000 each."
An added bonus came in the form of improved morale. "There's no municipality mentality here," Richard said with pride. "I told them we're not a municipality; we're a construction company. They're builders; they're not just filling pot holes."
Tackling the box culverts has given him the confidence to start looking ahead to other projects, such as four critical bridge replacements that were originally constructed in NYCDEP watershed in the 1920s and 1930s.
It Takes a Town
Kent has shared service agreements with Putnam County, NYSDOT Region 8, every town in Putnam County and East Fishkill, Pawling and Red Hook in Duchess County. "We work as one big team," Richard said.
Having grown up in nearby Mahopac, Richard has an extended network of contacts throughout Putnam County, making cooperative ventures easier to achieve. Underscoring his extensive network of contacts, Richard mentioned that Theresa Burke, the Red Hook highway superintendent graduated from Mahopac High School with him in 1974.
"When we attend the Cornell Local Roads school and sit next to each other in class, we laugh, because we were doing the same thing 50 years ago."
Similarly, Russ Goff, highway superintendent in neighboring Patterson, went to North Salem High School with Richard's wife.
He also puts his trust in the local residents.
Named after an early settler, Kent lies just 50 mi. north of New York City, amidst rugged hills surrounded by lakes. Settled by Europeans in the mid-18th century, Kent was part of the Frederickstown Precinct chartered in 1772. Considered a safe place to raise a family, Kent is home to approximately 14,000 residents.
Many of those residents commute to New York City, so they want the roads clear, Richard said.
"Tony [the previous highway superintendent] had a hard time from the board [to get money to fix the roads.]"
In this instance, Richard encouraged the residents to do the fighting for him. "I gave out [the town board's] cell phone numbers and told people to call them and ask for money to pave the roads. Give me the money, equipment and men and I will fix the whole town!"
Richard has never shied away from engaging in battle with the bipartisan town board when he thought the town needed something. Considering his military background, it should come as no surprise that he's not afraid to stand up for what he believes in.
"I just tell the truth," he said. "Most boards consist of people that do not understand construction, so you must be able to convey your needs to them in layman's terms."
The area is steeped in military correctness. Just across the Hudson River sits the United States Military Academy, more commonly known as West Point. Originally built as a fort due to its strategic vantage point, it's the oldest of the five American service academies. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson directed that it should be established; it was founded one year later.
Today, cadets seek an education in order to be commissioned into the U.S. Army.
Famous graduates include President Dwight Eisenhower, President Grant, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, Stonewall Jackson and George Armstrong Custer, who finished last in his class.
West Point also is known as the first American college to offer an accredited civil engineering program. Its technical curriculum became a model for other engineering schools.
Tourists enjoy visiting its central campus, the entirety of which is a national landmark, with numerous monuments and historic Norman-style buildings constructed of gray and black granite.
Hiking the Hills of Hudson River Valley
Another tourist attraction is the 180-mi. Adirondack trail, which runs through Adirondack Park, the nation's largest wilderness park outside Alaska. Formed by glaciers, the park features numerous lakes and ponds that not only offer opportunities for boating and fishing, but also create a dramatic backdrop for hikers.
Hiking is one of Richard's favorite leisure activities, along with bike riding and swimming — and, when he was younger, triathlons. "I don't hunt," said the former Marine. "After 9/11, I don't like to see creatures die." He does, however, enjoy the marksmanship and competition inherent in skeet shooting.
Come September, Richard will celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with wife, Irene, a local girl who went to North Salem high school and the Rhode Island School of Design before launching a business in industrial design. She now works as an art teacher.
The couple has three children: Thomas is the port engineer for the USS New York LPD-21 and a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy reserve, married to Melissa (nee Alwardt) from Rochester. They have a daughter, Lorraine, and are expecting another this summer. Jayne, an RN at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, is married to Sean Gallen, a Yonkers fireman. Alex is a former Navy Seal who runs the nonprofit "Guardian Revival" for veterans. Rounding out the family are two standard Schnauzers, Trooper and Nellie.
Richard's roots go deep here. He played high school football against his predecessor at the highway department (Mahopac vs. Carmel High). "Tony was a fast half-back. You could not catch him!"
His worst day on the job was when Tony died. "He'd been retired a couple years by then," Richard said. "He had a hard time with the town board but was best friends with Lewie Strickland, my general foreman. Lewie runs the show around here. I call him the Sergeant Major. I tell him which jobs need to be done and he takes it from there.
"A lot of the guys worked with Tony," Richard added. "I consulted him a lot. I lost a source of information on the history of the roads. It was like an era of the town died."
A New Era
Richard, a member of both the Duchess and Putnam Highway Superintendent associations, said he sought the position because he knew what needed to be done. But, in accomplishing his goals, he said, "I fought with everybody."
Undecided if he'll run one more time after his term expires on 12/31/26, the 65-year-old is considering "maybe one more easy term," since he's "done nothing but work hard since I got here."
But he feels he's at a turning point in his life, with many of his friends passing away. So, the desire to get a boat is growing stronger. "I would like to get a job on a tour boat in the Hudson River," he said. "I always want to be doing something."
Before he goes, he hopes to "finish up the existing capital and fleet improvements and finally function as a normal highway department." He said he also could use a conveyor belt for the salt shed and landfill.
Reflecting, Richard said, "Things are going great here. I will only be able to enjoy all the facility and fleet resurrection for a couple years before I retire — hopefully, seven years from now. I do not need political aggravation at this stage in my life."
Whenever he does decide to trade in his superintendent job for that boat, he hopes his legacy will be bringing Kent from the cusp of the 21st century fully into it.
Even as he takes a bow for that accomplishment, he acknowledged that there's farther to go.
"Future superintendents will have to know how to use technology." One of the hardest parts of his job was applying for FEMA money after a hurricane. "I had to have my finance manager fill out the application. I did get a BRIDGE NY grant, but I needed help from a grant writer and a consulting engineer."
Nevertheless, he assessed, Kent is "moving ahead — with a good crew and good equipment." And he's not bored, yet. P