Lengyel caps 35 years as sewer, water worker

MIDDLEBURY — When Paul Lengyel was helping build the former Middlebury wastewater treatment plant off Seymour Street more than three decades ago, he never imagined he would someday land a job at a new municipal treatment plant that would eventually replace it.
But that’s just what happened.
And after 35 years tending to Middlebury’s water and sewer systems, Lengyel decided to hang up his wrench and pager and retire this past Friday, Aug. 14.
“I’ll miss the guys,” Lengyel said on Thursday, referring to his colleagues at the wastewater treatment plant that is nestled on the outer edge of Middlebury’s industrial park. “But I won’t miss being on call and it will be nice to not have to get up at 6 every morning.”
Lengyel recalled laying pipe and putting in manholes for the old sewer plant during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a lengthy temporary job that concluded in 1982, leaving Lengyel looking for new employment. He learned that two workers in the town’s water department were leaving, and decided to apply for a soon-to-be-vacant water system maintenance position.
He did well during the interview and landed the job and was metaphorically thrown into the deep end of the pool.
“I began my job after minimal orientation,” Lengyel said with a smile.
One of the many things he had to learn was operation of the telemetry system that ran the water pumps. That now-antiquated telemetry system ran off the telephone lines. Lengyel’s responsibilities included taking care of the town’s three system pump houses, making sure the water reservoir was full, installing and reading meters, and responding to system leaks.
Perhaps the most monotonous work was reading the meters to gauge water consumption at the hundreds of connections in town. This was a chore that had to be done every three months, with water department officials sharing the responsibilities.
“I have been in every basement in Middlebury, including at the college,” Lengyel said.
He’d walk or ride his bike to the various meter assignments and miraculously never got bitten by a dog — but came close. On one occasion, a dog chased Lengyel across a yard but fortunately stopped in its tracks after reaching the limits of its invisible fence.
Lengyel mostly enjoyed the out-of-office work, which gave him occasional opportunities to chat with customers. He recalled in particular an elderly Court Street shut-in who looked forward to his visits.
“She would talk to me for 30 or 45 minutes,” Lengyel said. “You could tell she wanted someone to talk to.”
Meter reading became a lot easier and less intrusive after the town invested in new technology that allowed for the meters to be read by a hand-held radio.
“You’d just drive by with a walkie-talkie and then plug it into a computer,” Lengyel said.
But there was no technology that could replace human attention to water system leaks, which could happen at any hour of the day and in all types of Vermont weather.
“I wish I’d kept count of all the leaks I went to,” Lengyel said. “It has to be over 1,000.”
Leaks were relatively frequent in his earlier days on the job because the water system infrastructure was older, Lengyel explained. Middlebury has during the past 15-20 years invested more resources into replacing the older sections of water main stretches that feed local homes and businesses like a subterranean intravenous system.
Lengyel recalled that system leaks could occur at the most inopportune times and weren’t always easy to fix. He worked at the site of one such leak for 36 hours straight. Then there was the leak that had to be mended during an evening when the outside temperature was 44 degrees below zero (with the wind chill factor).
Still, it was a decent job at what was a solid starting wage for the early 1980s: $4.21 per hour with overtime opportunities and good health care benefits.
“You could make ends meet better then than you can now at $26 per hour,” Lengyel said.
But after spending 19 years with the water department, Lengyel was ready to make a change. He was in his mid-40s, and the outdoor rigors of the water department job were starting to gnaw at him.
“I just wanted to learn something new,” he said.
It was at this time that he noted a vacancy for a Middlebury wastewater system maintainer. It looked like it would be a good change of pace, with more predictable hours and a chance to learn about new technology. Lengyel got the job and immersed himself in a mandatory four-month course to learn the ins and outs of the town’s wastewater treatment plant. He was drilled in the terminology, math and other skills needed to help ensure the smooth functioning of one of Middlebury’s most critical municipal services.
Lengyel’s tasks for the past 15 years have included inspecting and maintaining the 22 wastewater pump stations throughout town, taking samples to monitor effluent from the plant’s water basins, grounds maintenance, and operating equipment that de-waters the sludge processed at the plant.
“It’s pretty basic,” Lengyel said of his duties, adding Middlebury’s wastewater plant is so technically sophisticated that it can virtually “run itself.”
But there are occasionally glitches in the system, and Lengyel has been one of five treatment plant employees to troubleshoot those snags. There’s a shelf at the plant that bears some of the “prizes” that have snaked their way from toilets through miles of conduit to the plant’s screens and pumps. There’s an assortment of rings, bullets, ping pong balls, earrings, coins, clothing, needles and even false teeth.
Lengyel said brassieres do a particularly bad number on the pumps.
He has enjoyed working for the town, but is ready to move on at age 59, due in part to health reasons. He has been diagnosed with Lyme disease, which includes such symptoms as fatigue and intense joint pain. He’ll take this fall and winter off before looking for a job better suited to his age and medical condition.
In the meantime, Lengyel will have some fun engaged in two of his favorite pastimes: Golfing and bird hunting.
Bob Wells, superintendent of Middlebury’s treatment plant, was among those who attended a retirement party for Lengyel last week.
“He’s a nice guy,” Wells said. “I wish him the best.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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