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Christopherson takes road to retirement

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Ross Christopherson always wanted to build something.

Turns out, Christopherson built a career with the Pierce County Highway Department. It began 29 years ago on the grading crew as a handyman and ended last week in the head office, as highway commissioner.

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Being appointed commissioner in 1993 wasn't a development he'd expected. Just the way things worked out, he said. Nonetheless, the retiree expressed pride in the department: Its good overall highway system, the excellent condition of its buildings and equipment.

"You can have all the equipment and buildings in the world, but without excellent, highly trained and dedicated employees doing the work, it means little," he said in a salute to the people working with him.

They're responsible for keeping up with 248 miles of county highways and 121 bridges on the county system, 66 of which have over 20-foot-long spans, he said. Additionally, they must maintain more than 1,200 culverts.

During Christopherson's tenure as commissioner, the department took over the Hwy. 10 bridge at Prescott, centralized department storage at headquarters, and introduced larger trucks and equipment besides contracting out some services as part of streamlining.

"There were more than 100 employees when I started," he said, adding, "There are around 60 now."

The outgoing commissioner has been involved in various capacities himself at one time or another. He said he's done construction staking, survey design, operated the motor grader and plowed snow.

One of his most memorable assignments was "opening up" old Hwy. 183 (now County Road CC) on the east side of the county after snowstorms in the early 1980s. With its then-narrow width and high shoulders, clearing the route was a real challenge.

"The people were always so happy when we got it open," he said.

The town of Ellsworth native grew up on the dairy farm of his parents, Lamoine and Marcella, he said. He has an older sister, Roxanne, in the Twin Cities, and another older sister, Rita (husband Barry) Hove and a younger brother Mark (wife Sheri), both in Ellsworth. He attended the one-room Iverson School before graduating from Ellsworth High School in 1969.

After graduation, he enrolled at the former District One Technical Institute (now Chippewa Valley Technical College) in Eau Claire, he said. There, he obtained an associate degree in civil structure technology.

His first job after getting the degree was as an apprentice carpenter on the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant construction project near Red Wing, Minn., in 1971, he said. His primary duty was making wood forms for concrete pours.

With a low number in the then-military draft, he next enlisted in the Marine Corps, he said. He spent two years in the Marines, one year of which occurred overseas.

Upon his return home, Christopherson attended UW-Stout in Menomonie, majoring in industrial technology management, he said. His previous schooling allowed him to graduate after two years with a bachelor's degree in science.

Then came a stint with Dittloff Engineering in River Falls, as a survey technician and instrument operator, he said. He ran transit, often doing land surveying.

"I liked working outdoors," he said.

In 1977, he took a position with the Dakota County (Minn.) Highway Department on its survey crew, he said. It would be the forerunner to his Pierce County employment, largely consisting of road construction staking. He switched to employ closer to home two years later, tiring of the commuting.

Christopherson suggested he's leaving the local department in good shape. He's not only confident about the overall condition of the county highways, but the excellent condition of the bridge structures.

Christopherson said federal funding has been secured for three bridges deemed deficient and targeted for upgrades in 2010: On County Road F over the Kinnickinnic River in the Clifton Hollow; on County Road U (the Thalacker realignment); and on County Road N north of El Paso.

Christopherson's wife, Kerry, is a retired teacher who's keeping busy with a flower enterprise. The couple has twin daughters, Leah and Kelly, and three grandchildren. In retirement, he hopes to spend more time with family and participating in outdoor activities.

Otherwise, he has no definite future plans, he said.

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