By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes
In the midst of a busy time, Robert Johnson remembered lessons from his former boss and set a high goal.
Johnson, who officially took over as Keizer Parks and Facilities supervisor in October, held the position on an interim basis after his boss, Terry Witham, retired on June 6 after nearly 17 years with the city.
“As it got closer to his retirement date, the city asked if I wanted to be the supervisor on an interim basis,” Johnson said. “Of course I said yes. The challenging part was this was a new role, in the middle of our peak season. June through August is almost insane around here. It’s very busy, with a lot going on. Parks are in full swing, kids are out of school and you need to keep everything looking good. Everything is topped out.
“I wanted to do the absolute best I could to make it seem we were not one person short,” he added. “I had a great crew of seasonal help under me. That helped a lot. I just stayed focused on the task ahead. We did it, absolutely. I accomplished what I set out to do. I don’t think the public realized we were operating one man down. I put those lessons from Terry to work.”
Chief among those lessons: keeping his chin up.
“I told myself to remain positive through everything,” Johnson said. “Negativity doesn’t get anyone anywhere.”
Growing up, Johnson’s father had a landscape company before going to work for Marion County. Johnson, 29, developed an early love for the outdoors and plants, something that continues today.
While at South Salem High School, Johnson dabbled with architecture.
“I had plans to be an architect for a while,” he said. “But they’re in the office 99 percent of the time. I would have missed being in the field.”
Johnson went through Chemeketa Community College to take classes in subjects like horticulture, landscape design and irrigation.
“That was more focused on my interests,” he said.
After that, Johnson was a seasonal worker in the Salem Parks Department for three years, the last in the wetlands field.
“That was a nice refresher for me, instilling in me a big-picture career focus,” Johnson said. “It put a cap on it: that’s what I really enjoy. I was seeing the end of the tunnel.”
But this was in 2007, when things were changing.
“Jobs weren’t being filled,” Johnson said. “In the past, if you worked long enough as a seasonal worker, you’d get hired on.”
That’s when Johnson saw an opening for a municipal utility worker 1 position in Keizer. He was fine with the idea, especially since his wife Karli is from the city.
“I knew Keizer was not a bad place,” Johnson said. “I always felt Keizer was a unique city. There’s a good group of people here with good volunteers. The people in Keizer love the city and keep the extra effort to keep it going.”
Johnson applied for and got the job in November 2007. He was the second full-time parks employee, under Witham.
“Keizer had grown to where they needed a second full-time guy,” Johnson said. “I brought to the city a slightly different view on how they were operating, but I was still learning. Terry had 40 years. He’d worked at Oregon State University with plants, in Stayton, then Keizer. I felt very fortunate to come under his wing and to get some knowledge from a well-rounded guy.
“I also got to put my thoughts and ideas into place as a team with him,” Johnson added. “We worked great as a team. In Keizer, we faced some pretty good budget crunch years. We had to get creative with how to succeed with less.”
More services were added, particularly with aspects added to the Keizer Rapids Park that was opened in 2006. Witham and Johnson kept up on the 18 parks in Keizer, while increasing maintenance and amenities.
“It’s amazing how much work can get done when it has to get done,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing Terry taught me: work hard when you have to. When it’s go time, it’s go time. He was always encouraging me to stay focused and work hard.”
Johnson, father of 2-year-old daughter Kaelynn and a son on the way, looks forward to his old job being filled.
“It’s a working supervisor role,” he said. “I’m in the office as much as I need to be. But I try to get out as much as I can. Each day is different. Something I love about this job is it’s not routine at all. Each season and each year is different. I’m not sitting in the office eight hours a day.”
Bill Lawyer, Public Works director for Keizer, Don Shelton has been hired recently as the second parks employee. Shelton has been a temporary parks employee the past two years.
“He can walk right in and get to work,” Lawyer said of Shelton. “He’s a great guy. He really worked hard as a temp the last two years, being willing to do whatever we ask of him. This is good for Robert, because he has someone who is already trained.”