Public service has been a way of life for South Russell Street Commissioner Darrell Johnson. Between his work at South Russell and Chagrin Falls in the service departments, he has been on duty keeping track of oncoming snow storms and icy roads for more than 45 years. He has also been a member of the Chagrin Falls Fire Department, making it a combined 50 years.
Now, Mr. Johnson, 67, who was born and raised in the Village of Chagrin Falls, will be retiring from his street commissioner position. His official retirement is Oct. 31.
In 1976, he started working with the Chagrin Falls Service Department and on Sept. 26, 1994 he was hired as street commissioner in South Russell where he has served under the leadership of former mayors Bill Young and Matt Brett and now Mayor Bill Koons.
The basics are the same, Mr. Johnson said of the work on the roads that has involved repairs and general maintenance in spring, summer and fall, and snow and ice removal in the winter.
He has seen changes, however, over the past 45 years including the techniques used in maintaining roads. Tar and chipping once was the standard. Now maintenance involves much preventative work as well as improvement with asphalt.
The village has 47 lane miles to maintain and three employees in addition to Mr. Johnson who do the work. When he started in the village, the service department occupied a space with the village building department. As the department grew, they saw a need for expansion. An additional bay used for an ambulance and a service bay were renovated in 1995 for his current office and the department’s lunch room.
Looking back, he noted how the village felt the effects of being part of the “Chardon snow belt.” One winter in the late 1990s, they had 101 inches of snow. It started on Veterans’ Day and went on for three days, he recalled.
Because of the moisture content of the snow, a state of emergency was declared by the county, but the village kept the roads open.
Primary treatment for the roads back then was salt and cinders. “We could use cinders because there were no storm sewers to get clogged up. The cinders were less expensive than salt. Gradually, the village moved to straight salt.
When he started in 1994 the White Tail Run development was just finishing up and was the last development to be completed, he said, and now the village is essentially built out.
“I’ve always enjoyed the work, the community and communicating with residents. I think it’s important to assist and help the longtime senior residents,” Mr. Johnson said.
He recalled when he first started, the Geauga County Department on Aging requested a special trash day to pick up large items for senior residents. He took the idea to the mayor and Village Council and they were eager to assist, joining the program in 1995. Now, most of the communities in Geauga have a senior trash pick-up day modeled after the South Russell program, he said.
He also takes pride in the village’s “Show Your Colors” flag display, started by former village Councilwoman Kathy O’Donnell and her husband Bill and other volunteers. The flags are displayed throughout the village during patriotic holidays and have served as a model for other communities, he noted.
The service department was located next to Chagrin Falls Airport on land that is now the Kensington Green community. It brought back many memories for him. When he was a boy living in Chagrin Falls, he recalled, “We would ride our bikes out here to watch the planes fly in and out.”
Born and raised on Olive Street in Chagrin Falls, he spent much of his life there. He graduated in 1970 from Chagrin Falls High School and is working with others on their 50th anniversary event. His grandfather Clyde Johnson was a councilman in Bentleyville and had a farm on Franklin Street.
He and his wife Amy had moved to South Russell, then 10 years ago moved back to Olive Street in his family home.
“Chagrin Falls was very much a home town. You knew everyone. Most of the merchants were residents of the town,”
Mr. Johnson said.
“You could walk to town and go to Isaly’s and the Cracker Barrel which was next to the Popcorn Shop” he said. There were multiple bars in town including Spinners, Tony’s Tavern, the White Stallion and Chagrin Valley Tavern. “I worked at stores including Paul’s Men and Boys Shop when I was in junior high and at Bob Lowe’s TV in high school.”
After high school, he worked for Reed Nichols Funeral Home and its ambulance services which provided that service in those days, he said.
When he was growing up on Olive Street, Henry Cohn, referred to as the “mayor” of the street, called the young Darrell Johnson, who was 10 or 12 at the time, the street commissioner. “He would ask me about the local happenings at the end of the street which he could not see. Ironically, he called me the street commissioner back then.”
When Mr. Johnson retired from the Chagrin Falls Fire Department, Chief Frank Zugan asked him to stay on as an associate member. With his interest in history, he has been researching the history of the fire department. He noted that previous members and others have given him photos and information and he is correlating the information with fire department minutes and newspaper articles.
He has produced binders with historical information and uses it when conducting the Memorial Day services for the fire department. “My theory is once that information is gone, you lose that history.”
Mr. Johnson admits that he won’t miss the 3 a.m. phone calls and long weekends during winter snowstorms. But he will miss working with residents.
Now, he and his wife have sold their house on Olive Street and have moved to be near their youngest daughter in Brunswick. They have a daughter in Burton and a son in Beachwood.
“I’ve got more time behind me than before me and I want to enjoy it,” Mr. Johnson said of time he plans to spend with his family.