Longtime city employees reflect on work, life in Fairhope

Submitted by D. Fran Morley
Posted 3/10/17

Very few 20-something individuals think about the long term when starting a new job. Certainly, when City of Fairhope employees Robert Rohm, Jimmy Cluster, and Chief of Police Joseph Petties began …

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Longtime city employees reflect on work, life in Fairhope

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Very few 20-something individuals think about the long term when starting a new job. Certainly, when City of Fairhope employees Robert Rohm, Jimmy Cluster, and Chief of Police Joseph Petties began their jobs with the City that they would still be working here more than 30 years later. The three sat down to talk about how their jobs and how the City itself has changed since they first went on the payroll back in the 1980s.

Jimmy Cluster’s first day with the City was January 5, 1987. He was hired into the Electric department and has stayed there the whole time.

Robert Rohm was hired on February 9, 1983 to work in Recreation. He transferred to the Gas Department on June 18, 1984.

Chief Joseph Petties began his employment with the City on October 28, 1982, as a part of Public Works. After nine years in Public Works and five years as a member of the Police Reserve, he joined the Fairhope Police Department as an officer on November 10, 1991.

 

Chief Joseph Petties

“I’ve worked about all my life. My dad did construction, so I worked with him on jobs, and I was working construction when I decided to apply for a job with the City in Public Works. At that time, the hourly pay was $4.25; that was a dollar or so less than what I was making in construction, but the City job included benefits like insurance, and holidays off, so I figured that made up the difference,” Petties said. “My first supervisor was Harold Mason. I moved around a lot in Public Works, we all did whatever needed to be done in those days, and I liked the work. But I also liked the idea of police work. I had friends who were officers, men I’d known since high school. I joined the Police Reserve, and then I took a class at the Academy. I think it was once a month for 18 months, so it was a commitment, and after I graduated from the Academy, I put in my application. I didn’t get hired the first time, but I tried again later, and I got on the force. Jerry Anderson was Chief then.”

Chief Petties said he never thought about becoming a supervisor. “I thought that if I could reach the rank of sergeant before I retired, that would be a good thing.” He already had his 30 years in with the City when there was an opening for police chief and he decided to give it a shot. He was named interim chief in October 2012 and became Chief of Police on February 8, 2013.

 

Jimmy Cluster

“I didn’t have any great plans when I graduated from Fairhope High School. I just wanted a good paying job,” Cluster said. “I tried to get on at the paper company in Mobile. Back then, that seemed like a good idea, and then I got a job at a plant in Theodore doing metal fabricating. It was an okay place to work, but I started getting tired of that long drive every day, so when there was an opening with the City, I decided to apply. I didn’t have any experience in electrical work, but Aaron Norris hired me and I came in at the entry level and I learned what I needed to know. I’m still learning today! There’s a lot of new technology and because of that, the job has changed a lot over the years.”

Once he got the job, Cluster said he grew to enjoy the work, especially the fact that it was in Fairhope. “I was really happy to be working at home. I met my wife, we got married, and we raised our family here.”

 

Robert Rohm

“I didn’t think I’d stay with the City when I was first hired to work in Recreation. It just seemed like a good job at the time,” Rohm admitted. “I had been working at the shipyards before I came here, and I guess someone thought I knew something about welding because of that. Gene Fuqua was gas department supervisor then, and he said the City needed a welder, so they were moving me from Recreation to Natural Gas. I told him I did a little welding in high school, but I didn’t have any work experience at it. They moved me to that department anyway, and I went to night school to learn basic welding. Now here I am all these years later.”

Rohm says the job of the Natural Gas Department hasn’t changed much in 30 years. “We still work with the same types of pipes, but the technology in how the meters work has changed. There’s technology that allows us to get readings without having to drive to a site, and new meters that are more accurate in registering the amount of gas that goes through the meter. It’s constantly improving.

 

Changes, Changes

Technology has driven many changes in how the way the electric department does its job, Cluster said. “In 1987, we had about 12 employees, now there’s 18, so that’s not a huge increase, but the work we do has increased and changed. Back then, we had about 4,800 meters, now we have 6,700. In those days, if there was an outage, we had to wait for the calls and then drive out to the affected neighborhood to find it and figure out the extent. Now, when we lose something, if it’s a breaker in a substation, whoever is on call gets a text. We automatically know where the problem is and what areas are impacted.”

Rohm noted the same type of advancements. “In the gas department, how the gas is delivered hasn’t changed; there’s not a lot different with the pipes, but with newer meters, we can get readings without having to drive to the site. Another big difference is now the City has an IT department to work with all that new technology. Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have known what that was, let alone that we’d need a whole department for that kind of work.”

The Fairhope Police Department has grown significantly since Chief Petties was first hired. “In the early 1980s, we had two-man shifts with four shifts a day, so that’s eight officers plus the chief, assistant chief, and four dispatchers. Now, the Police Department has 64 employees, including jailers, dispatch, other support personnel, and officers. (The opening of the city’s new, larger jail in 2000 drove much of that increase in employees, Petties noted.) The FPD currently operates with five-man shifts plus two officers who just work traffic.

 

Working Together

All the men fondly recalled the days when their jobs found them working on whatever needed to be done around the city, regardless of the department. Chief Petties and Rohm both remembered how Petties was working construction with Public Works when different crews came together to help build the library’s new space in the old Delchamps building (what became the city hall complex) when the library moved there from its original location on Summit Street. “That was a big project we all did together,” Rohm said. “I was in recreation, and there wasn’t a lot to do in the winter, so I got put in Public Works to help on the construction crew for that.”

Rohm also remembered working on the ballparks. “We poured and spread all that concrete between the fields by hand.”

“Oh, yeah,” replied Chief Petties. “I remember that. That was a lot of work.”

That’s just the way it worked back then, Cluster added. “It didn’t matter so much what department you were in; you did all sorts of things depending on what needed to be done any particular day. Whoever was available got picked to do the job that was needed.”

Rohm remembered similar jobs where everyone cooperated, including the boat ramp at Pier Street and work building greens at Quail Creek Golf Course.

 

Big Growth, Big Changes

More than just working for the City for 30-plus years, all the men remember how living in Fairhope has changed.

“Thursdays at noon, all the shops downtown closed,” Cluster said. “They rolled up the streets.”

“It was nothing like it is now. I could never had envisioned the city like it is today,” said Rohm.

“I remember when Greeno Road was just two lanes with deep ditches on either side,” Petties added, “and there weren’t many places to eat. There was A&W Root Beer, Busy Bee, and Herb’s. But there was a skating rink, an arcade up town, and a bowling alley. We did have those back then.”

 

The Future

“Fairhope’s going to keep growing because people want to live here,” Petties said. “We’ve got an excellent crime rating, good exposure from magazines as being a great family friendly place to live. When I travel and people ask where I’m from, I give them the city website address and tell them to look for themselves. I’m proud of Fairhope, and I think the people who work for the City love our community. That makes a difference.”

The three men agree that the City gave them great career opportunities and has been a good place to work. “Thirty years from now, I hope the City still looks in-house for management,” Rohm said. “People who live here and work here care about the city. I agree with what the Chief said, that’s important.”

Cluster said he likes that the City has a family feel, partly because many of the employees are related to one another. “A lot of people over the years who worked for the City had siblings, parents, or cousins working here. I think that’s a good thing. If you’re a young guy and your dad works here, even in another department, are you going to act up?”

“A lot of the younger generation looks just at pay,” Chief Petties said. “Well, I guess we did too, but a lot of the younger ones today want to move away, go to a big city, do something different. But many of those kids then return to Fairhope when they are ready to raise their families or later yet when they want to retire. I hope it stays that way: a good place to grow up, raise families, and retire.”