New Paltz Highway department secretary Carol West is the person on the other end of the line when you call to complain about snow plowing, tree trimming or road conditions. So it’s no surprise that when asked what attributes are necessary to do her job, her response is, “patience, a sense of humor and a thick skin.”
The rest of her job involves administrative tasks — a constant turnaround of paying bills and doing purchase orders — and keeping a tight rein on the budget numbers, monitoring all the necessary expenditures. “Toward the end of the year, it gets tight,” she says, “but you do the best you can.”
West was hired by the previous highway superintendent, Michael Nielson, in early 2011. The job was part time then, so she also worked part time keeping books at the Town Hall office. And other than a period of time when her children were small and she ran a daycare center out of her home for a few years, West has always been in administrative work in some form or another. Before working for the town, she did bookkeeping and payroll for the New Paltz Auto Center for ten years.
The Chelmsford, Massachusetts native has lived in New York since 1995 and in the New Paltz area since ’97. Married 25 years this May to her husband, Gary, the two have raised three sons: Adam, 24, Tyler, 23 and Alex, 16. So between living in a house full of men and boys and experience in the automotive field, she’s very well equipped to work at the highway garage with all men; that doesn’t faze her a bit. In fact, she says, they’re a great bunch of guys, and she’s very supportive of what they go through out on the roads, especially at this time of year.
“I got this letter from a woman in Boston, and it’s funny, because it sounds exactly like New Paltz. She talks about how when the highway guys are out plowing, and they stop for a cup of coffee or to grab some food, instead of going up to them and complaining that the road hasn’t been plowed and giving them a hard time, ask them how long they’ve been out there. They have to stop at some point to get out of the truck to catch their breath; they get tunnel vision after a while. And a lot of times they’ve not only been out there for ten, even 16 or 20 hours, they’ve left their families in the middle of the night to do this. It’s not an 8-to-5 job. They’re doing the best they can to get people to work the next day. So ask them how their night was; ask them if you can buy them a cup of coffee. You’re home on a Sunday and they’re out plowing so you can get to the store. Their wife can’t even get out because they can’t get to their own home to plow. People don’t realize that they have personal lives also. When people complain or stick their middle finger up at them as they drive by, the guys just smile and wave; what are they supposed to do?”
What do you like most about the job?
The people that I work with. The highway superintendent is fantastic; we get along very well. We’re on the same page, so if one of us is not thinking about what we need to do or not to do, the other one’s always thinking about it. He can leave the office and not worry the place will fall down or the guys will have issues. And the guys are great to work with; they’re always very respectful to me. They all have their own idiosyncrasies and you kind of have to judge how they’re feeling in the course of the day, but they know what they’re doing, they do a fantastic job and they get the job done. They may say this or that to each other but if they need to vent out there, then go ahead and vent.
Since it’s just you in the office, how did you learn the ropes?
I mainly trained in between jobs; when I was working down the road I would come up here after work. It was really just a matter of somebody showing you how everything is done, and then once you get in and get a rhythm, you tweak it yourself. The highway secretary before me stayed a few weeks before she left to help me out a bit and after she left there was a deputy highway secretary who came in to help me. But you find ways to do things on your own and change things around so that it works for you.
What makes for a really bad day?
A lot of complaints. Snow brings out the worst in people.
And a good day?
Every day is a good day as long as I’m not getting screamed and yelled at and nobody has come through the door wielding something that’s going to hurt me. Other than that, I’m fine. It doesn’t take much to make a good day; pretty much every day is good.
Has the job changed since you started?
The only thing that changes is that the highway superintendent is elected. This is an election year, so you get a little squeamish about whether he’ll get re-elected or who is going to be in next. That could affect my job; if Chris [Marx, highway superintendent] doesn’t get reelected, the next person who comes in would either want me or not want me, we’d get along or not get along. The new person could bring their own secretary in. That would actually be counterproductive here to get rid of the office administrative person who knows the ropes, but they can do that.
What advice would you give someone going into this field?
If they don’t have thick skin and they can’t handle the guys, then they shouldn’t be in this position. If they’re squeamish about anything that has to do with a man, then it’s not the place for them. They can’t be afraid to hear what gets said; they have to be able to not be too sensitive.
Is there anything about you that people would be surprised to know?
Believe it or not, I am a very sensitive person and my feelings do get hurt. I just hold it inside. I bottle a lot of stuff up, and it doesn’t affect anything, but I am tough on the outside, gooey on the inside. And I’m a romantic at heart.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
When I have free time? (laughs)
I know, what free time, right?
I like to sew. I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to do it in years, but my middle son just moved out and I’m taking over his bedroom to make into a sewing room. I’ve made a few quilts over the years; I want to do a jeans and bandanna quilt now with a flannel backing. And DIY stuff; we recently put down tile floors at home. And we re-did my bathroom, so painting… that remodeling type of thing I enjoy. But again, it’s just the time. You need time to do these things.