Utility pro hangs up hard hat
River Falls Municipal Utility General Manager Carl Gaulke remembers the day in 1971 when he got the news he'd be working for the city.
"I came in from chopping corn on a Friday afternoon," he said, "and my mom told me the city had called and said, 'If he wants the job, to start Monday.'"
The 41-year career that followed included time as office manager, finance director and, for the past 12 years, general manager -- the chief person responsible for making sure that people's lights turn on, their water runs and their toilets flush.
Over the years, Gaulke has amassed a library of knowledge about utility workings. But as of Dec. 31, Gaulke looks forward to amassing knowledge of retirement.
Gaulke had graduated high school in Spooner then earned a two-year accountant's degree. He says the city career began forming when he saw a tiny ad while waiting for a dental appointment.
He completed the paperwork, then interviewed for the city's utility-accountant job.
Gaulke said he didn't think much about it after tha but says the call, which came six months later, was "great news in a bad economy."
River Falls holds a going-away party for Gaulke from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19, in the lower level training room of City Hall, 222 Lewis Street. Gaulke said the festivities will continue from 5-7 p.m. that evening at Junior's Bar and Grille, 100 Spring St.
Gaulke turns 62 on Christmas Day and says "the time" feels right. He anticipates spending more time with his wife of 32 years, Brenda, and says the two might eventually travel.
Gaulke will be able to spend more time with their two adult children and two small grandchildren.
Gaulke says he's always gone on one fishing trip per year but plans to indulge in that activity much more often. He thinks his future will also hold more vegetable and flower gardening.
Like he has for the past 23 years, Gaulke says he'll keep serving the local "chain gang" that works high school and university football games. He enjoys all sports but says football and hockey are his favorites, and he likes being able to walk to local games.
The list of responsibilities he's fulfilled touches nearly every part of River Falls, with many years of service on the boards of different entities.
Those include supplier Wisconsin Public Power, Inc.; the River Falls and Pierce County Economic Development Corporations; the Fire Department for 40 years; a rates-and-delivery service advisory group; the Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin; American Public Power Association's Honor Roll; Wisconsin Real Water; the commission for the West Central Wisconsin Biosolids facility in Ellsworth; and others.
Gaulke said all the organizations help municipal employees do a better job and improve service. For example, the entities always helped him stay informed about the ever-present changes in regulations, technology and science.
When he started with the city, Pat Petricka was secretary of the utility commission. Utility employees in 1971 included Gaulke, an administrator, a receptionist and a part-time office person. Now the utility employs two dozen people.
The retiring general manager says he learned a lot during his career but singles out the most important: "Success is customer service."
Gaulke said each year he'd talk with customers -- usually industrial and business -- about their utilities. That helped the utility pinpoint needed improvements.
Gaulke said one of the bigger and more notable improvements was establishing the 'north power substation' in 2003, bringing much better service to customers on that end of town. He said an assertive tree-trimming plan also helped River Falls greatly reduce the number of service interruptions.
A computer monitoring system for the water utility senses any changes in the system, enabling operators to determine a reason for the shift. For example, it would show if a change in flow was a problem or something expected like university students returning to school.
He remembers the early days of generating bills by sticking a big ledger card with a magnetic strip into a machine. A new system ended the magnetic strip and began monthly, instead of quarterly, billing.
Gaulke admits he's had a few calls in the dead of night but gives on-call credit to the superintendents of each respective utility. They're the first to get the "situation" calls.
He said green energy is discussed much more often and openly than in the past, and concern over things such as mercury have also grown.
Gaulke said after River Falls' population reached 10,000 people, regulations required the addition of chlorine. Later and after complaints about rusty-looking water, the utility began adding phosphates.
He said sewer regulations have totally changed during his years in the business but says news standards have helped make major backups nearly non-existent.
Gaulke acknowledges the importance of high-quality utilities that operate well and reliably.
"That's what the expectation is out there and you have to live up to that," said Gaulke. "Every time somebody turns on the water, it needs to be safe to drink."
Asked what he'll miss most and least about the job, Gaulke said he'll miss the daily interaction with customers and general camaraderie.
He says with a smile, "Basically I'll look forward to no meetings at night."
Gaulke said his utility career has never been a 40-hour-a-week job, but he feels fortunate to have worked for the city and utility, including 14 different mayors and eight city administrators.
"I want to thank them all and the customers for this opportunity," said Gaulke.
As he winds down and transitions from many boards and committees, the city has been recruiting for a new utility general manager.
The application deadline was Dec. 3. A recent municipal report says City Administrator Scot Simpson will serve as the RFMU interim manager.
About Gaulke, colleagues say...
While time and space limit the number, several of Carl Gaulke's coworkers offered comments in honor of his retirement:
Rhonda Davison, Lead Customer Service Representative: "It has been great working with Carl because of his dedication, passion, and knowledge of the River Falls community and the utility industry. Carl always keeps in mind the best interest of all staff and customers when he is faced with making decisions. I will miss you Carl!"
Mike Stifter, Former Utility Commission President: "I have had the good fortune to have worked with Carl for the past several years both as a Utility Commissioner as well as through my work at the university. He is a man of integrity, extremely knowledgeable, and a dedicated public servant. While he has been an outstanding colleague, I am more happy to call him friend. And so while we no longer will have the opportunity to work side by side on utility-related matters, I look forward to a continued friendship! Best wishes on a well-deserved retirement!"
Chuck Beranek, Electric Utilities Operations Superintendent: "It's been my privilege working for Carl as the Electric Operations Superintendent these past 10 years. I believe that somewhere in that time frame he and I became friends. I don't think you will find anyone more dedicated to the City of River Falls. I'll miss him."
Scot Simpson, City Administrator:"It is a great responsibility that staff and managers of the River Falls Municipal Utilities have in being the best stewards of the resources the community has provided them with in carrying out the mission of reliable and cost effective service. Very few people can claim to have contributed to the positive legacy of municipal ownership of the electric, water, and sewer service in River Falls like Carl Gaulke has."
Grant Hanson, Utility Commissioner and Advisory Board member:"I started on the Commission in 2002, and I've found Carl to be a total dedicated and ethical person. He has worked with the people of the River Falls area in mind. He's going to be very much missed, and it will be difficult to find his replacement."