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The People's Voice: Boehle and Co. are snowbound

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Ogle County Highway Department plow driver Dave Boehle has had his work cut out for him this snowy season. The 14 members of the department have worked 53 of the last 55 days. Except foreman Joe Palmer. He worked Christmas, too, meaning he's worked 54 days since Dec. 8.
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Ogle County plow driver Dave Boehle has had his work cut out for him this snowy season.

Ever lie in bed at night, wondering whether you could've done a better job at work?

Could you have closed another sale? Maybe you can't remember whether you put a cover sheet on all of your TPS reports.

Prepare to feel silly. Dave Boehle wonders whether he did enough to preserve the health – and lives, frankly – of his fellow man.

"You never switch it off," the longtime Oregon resident said while I rode along on his snow plowing route Tuesday morning. "You're still thinking about, 'Maybe I should've ran that route. ... Is that one still OK? Maybe that's my first objective tomorrow.' It's very hard to shut it off."

Click here to hear the podcast of the interview with Dave Boehle ( To download the mp3, right-click the link and click "Save link as")

His pre-occupation with his occupation should come as little surprise. He and the 13 other members of the Ogle County Highway Department are something beyond dedicated, as reflected by their recent attendance record: 55 days elapsed; 53 days worked. Oh, except for foreman Joe Palmer. He worked Christmas, too. So he's 54-for-55.

"He does a fantastic job for us," Ogle County Engineer Curtis Cook said of Palmer, who has filled the role for almost 10 years. "In the wintertime, Joe doesn't get a lot of sleep."

Cook says Palmer isn't the sort of guy you take out for a steak dinner as a reward. That's not why the foreman drives highways at all hours of the night, checking on potential snowfall.

“You just pat him on the back and tell him he’s doing a great job,” Cook said. “One of the things that I don’t do is ever second-guess the decisions that our guys make. I don’t have to worry about the decisions being made by our guys. They never underdo a job. If they’re going to err, they’re going to overdo it. And that’s an error I can live with.”

Perhaps your co-workers commiserate and crack jokes about how life feels like Groundhog Day as Mother Nature relentlessly grips the Midwest, her icy mitts trying to crush our will to live. But most of us deal with her from the indoors. Imagine going toe-to-toe with that cold-hearted woman every day, on her turf. Talk about the nastiest of Groundhog Days.

Here's a glimpse of that day that won't die for the Ogle County workhorses. (About the only good news is that it doesn't open with the prechorus to Sonny and Cher's greatest hit.)

Hit the alarm at 3 a.m. Arrive at work at 3:45. Be on the road at 4. Clear 270-some highway miles' worth of snow – often the same snow you cleared yesterday (Talk about maddening!) – for the next 12, sometimes 13 hours. Go home. Go to sleep, if you can. Repeat.

Wait a second, though. As Cook pointed out when he called me at 7 a.m. Tuesday, his guys don't just go home, eat dinner and relax until they turn in. They've got their own driveways to clear. They're family men.

And, in Boehle's case, he often has his daughter's games to catch – actually a sort of silver lining for his 12-hour days wrapping up just in time for him to make tip-off.

About 2 hours after chatting with Cook, I was climbing into Boehle's rig. He told me about the literal process. The keys to keeping morale high. His refusal to use performance-enhancing beverages. I even learned a new word. Pushing snow from one side of the highway to the other when the bank grows too tall? That's called hogging.

Having formerly coached his daughter, Megan, through eighth-grade hoops, Boehle also opined on what it will take for his beloved Hawks to make a nice postseason run.

Visit www.saukvalley.com to hear our conversation in its entirety. Well … not its entirety. I couldn't post a 70-minute podcast with a straight face. So I pared it down to just a few ticks shy of 40 minutes. I think the audio does a nice job of bringing you there – "there" being the southwest corner of Ogle County. So rather than painting the scene, I'm spending this column painting the proverbial landscape of the department's task at hand.

Cook gave me some hard numbers – in addition to the sparse time off – to help with that. The crew is burning through about $20,000 worth of fuel each week, more than a 50 percent increase in a year-over-year comparison. Eighty-hour work weeks are the norm, resulting in about twice the overtime the county is accustomed to paying.

That money has to come from somewhere. So when street-paving projects aren't carried out as quickly as projected, let's not forget the winter they will have endured, and how much it will have sapped the county funds.

This isn't Boehle's first rodeo. Far from. He's been doing this for 23 years, almost 10 of them with the added title of assistant foreman. (Yep. He's the guy who takes the ball when Palmer can't go.) He and his wife, Lisa, don't bother making plans for their February wedding anniversary. And Megan has learned to deal with the fact that Dad will miss her birthday just about every December.

But there haven't been many winters quite like this one. And the long-range forecast calls for a snowy February, so that torrid clip at which these guys have been working likely won't end soon. I hopped out of his machine with a lot of fresh perspective and admiration for the work he and his guys do.

And these are smart guys. More than half of the crew members have a college degree. Boehle got his from Illinois State in corporate fitness. But he also worked for the county through college, and when his field of study's opportunities kept calling him toward Chicago, he opted to stay in Ogle County. You know, where his heart is.

The Ogle County guys are anything but alone, and they share a strong sense of camaraderie with other counties' crew members.

"We're all in this together," Boehle said. "We're all fighting the same fight."

Let's make sure we spread the love. Bureau County's drivers have also had only two days off since Dec. 8, Lee County's four, and Whiteside County's five.

And all they ask in return is that we harness our road rage while they clear the way for us to get to work. To our families. To our lives.

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