Ultimately, the goal of this space I'm given every other weekend is to tell the stories of the everyman. And, Lordy, is Curt Phillips the prototypical subject: a guy who keeps our Sauk Valley world spinning round, yet wouldn't typically show up in the newspaper.
So why don’t you see a big, artfully shot portrait of Phillips? There are a couple of reasons. First off, whereas these columns usually focus on a solitary subject, in order for Phillips to do his job as superintendent of the Dixon Department of Public Properties, it takes a village.
Second, he doesn't want to be seen.
"You don't want to bother with any of that," he said during our interview. "I just like to do my job."
Sitting in his office evoked memories of my experience working for the Department of Public Works in my hometown of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. But there was a stark difference between that outfit and Phillips'. Sure, we grunts carried out the requirements of our jobs. But we did just enough to do so. Many employees slept in their trucks, and some even slipped the grid altogether for hours at a time after thoroughly casing their supervisors' schedule.
I think the most heinous crime I committed was taking my truck – my partner and I spent the summer changing the bulbs in traffic lights and painting hydrants – through fast-food drive-thrus a few times. That was forbidden, but what can I say? I was young and reckless.
For a few years, Phillips had no part-timers at his disposal. Instead, he and his two fellow full-timers did their best to keep up the nearly 80-acre Oakwood Cemetery in Dixon, in addition to watering the petunias.
And right there is the timeliness of this offering.
Last Saturday, Phillips and Co. delivered the plants – and not just any plants. These are the Dixon-original pink magic species – to the 17 blocks on which they'd be planted.
Terry Nichols, who has been synonymous with horticulture in Dixon for 4 decades, used to deliver the plants. "He's been doing this even longer than I have," Phillips said. And Phillips has been with the department since 1986. When he was at Dixon High School, his summer job with the department saw him – you might have guessed it – watering petunias.
So Phillips has a pretty firm grip on what the little pink beauties mean to Dixonites.
That's why having the staff to handle the cemetery and the petunias is such a breath of fresh air.
Phillips’ voice turns solemn when he recalls what the cemetery (the department's primary focus) looked like when the three full-timers were stretching themselves as thinly as possible.
“The grounds showed it,” he said. “It’s a lot of area to cover. Lot of rocks to mow around out there.”
So you could only imagine how proud he was when attendees of the recent Memorial Day service gushed about the lush-yet-finely-manicured cemetery. Similarly, you can assume arriving at work is easier every day when you know your staff is ample.
"Doesn't get any better than that," Phillips said.
And the importance of making those jobs available is multifold – not just to keep Phillips and his full-timers from working themselves into the ground. (A bad pun, I know, but I can't bring myself to delete it.) As a former teenager who relied on a city job over the summers to make car payments, buy clothes or take out my main squeeze on the occasional date, I can relate.
Today, I’m an adult who understands the importance of shopping local.
"They've got some money, and I'm sure that some of it goes back into the community when they purchase things," Phillips said. "It's good all around."
As for those petunias, like I said, Phillips is aware of what they mean to Dixon. So, while he admits he's no horticulturist, he is the guy to coordinate the watering, the city decided.
There has been a 2-year hiatus on the in-ground flowers, as they were dying off far too often. Commissioner Colleen Brechon suspects they might have been over-watered.
So, whereas she assembled a veritable army to carry out the planting last Saturday, watering is strictly Phillips' jurisdiction. And he is quick to point out that in many years, the petunias have looked glorious. To make sure visitors and longtime resident alike are charmed by the bright-pink staples, the planting zone has been scaled all the way down from some 200 blocks to 17 this summer.
Like anything in life, there’s a learning curve. For instance, the relatively new hanging baskets weren’t faring well at times in recent years. So rather than exclusively watering them over the weekends, Phillips decided it was time to give them a drink every day. After all, they’re not like the in-ground plants that are much better cared for by Mother Nature.
Which leads us, ultimately, to a concession: No matter how thoroughly staffed Phillips’ department is, and even though six of his seven part-timers are veterans on the job, the man who’s spent 28 years with the Public Properties Department has to leave things up to a higher power.
"The ones in the ground, it just depends on Mother Nature how much we need to water those," Phillips said. "We just hope we get a decent growing season. There's not a whole lot we can do, other than control the water and let happen what happens."
So if it takes a village, I guess Mother Nature is its president. But it’s nice to have a right-hand man like Phillips.