Johnson ready to hit the road

CORNWALL — Stu Johnson recalled his late father’s reaction when he was first elected Cornwall’s road commissioner more than two decades ago.
“He told me, ‘Who would’ve thought all those years in the sandbox would be your on-the-job training,’” Johnson said.
As Johnson spoke he was smiling and removing some of the old toy trucks he had displayed in the no-frills office that had for years served as his home away from home — the Cornwall town garage off South Bingham Street.
“I’m picking up my toys and going home,” he chuckled.
Rest assured, he’ll continue to live in Cornwall and will remain at the town’s disposal during its transition to a new road-crew member and, ultimately, a new commissioner.
But come this Tuesday, Johnson, 63, will begin a new chapter in his professional life — as branch manager of the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Local Roads program. Based in Berlin, Johnson will advise and train municipal road crews throughout the state in performing the public works chores he has helped carry out in Cornwall since being elected its road commissioner in 1992.
“I’m looking forward to the new challenge,” Johnson said. “And I am very appreciative to the town.”
It will be a major transition for the town of Cornwall, which is suddenly losing its go-to guy for all things road and culvert. Whether it’s logging an 18-hour shift in the municipal plow during a nasty snowstorm or removing a deceased turtle that couldn’t quite make it across West Street, Johnson has always been one of the community’s most ubiquitous public servants.
“If it’s a job too big for us to do, I’m responsible for making sure that it gets done,” Johnson said, referring to instances when the town must hire a contractor.
Johnson needs no introduction in Cornwall. A large man clad in his trademark overalls and sporting a boomerang-shaped mustache, Johnson is happy to give you the news in no-nonsense sound bites. It took a lot of coaxing to convince Johnson that his story was worth some ink. And if you sit down with him long enough, he’ll open up and share some knowledge, all infused with a wry sense of humor.
He knew, as a child that he wasn’t suited to a conventional office setting.
“I’ve always been an ‘outdoors work’ guy,” Johnson said, noting his first jobs as a youth involved growing vegetables and tending chickens.
Once out of high school, he enrolled in the Animal Science program at the University of Massachusetts. After two years, he decided the more technical elements of the curriculum were not his cup of tea and instead enrolled in a “pre-professional forestry” offering at Paul Smith’s College. He earned his associates degree in that field after two years, but decided an arboreal avocation was not in his — or the trees’ — best interest.
“I decided if I went into forestry, I was going to kill the trees,” Johnson laughed.
So he moved to Cornwall around 40 years ago to try his hand at dairy farming and landscaping.
“I tried raising heifers and almost starved to death,” he said.
But Johnson was good at landscaping. He freelanced in that field, eventually supplementing that work during the late 1980s as a principal member of the Whiting road crew. He did that for three years before his successful election as Cornwall’s road commissioner in 1992.
His responsibilities — and those of his fellow road-crew member Ken Manchester — are directly tied to the 32 miles of Class 2 and 3 local roads that Cornwall must maintain and occasionally improve. Johnson and Manchester have spent a lot of time making sure those roads and related culverts are clear of snow and debris to ensure safe passage for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians.
Johnson is proud of the department’s track record during his 24 years as commissioner. He credited the town of Cornwall for approving the funds necessary to keep the roads in consistently good shape. 
“I don’t have to do what I used to have to do (for maintenance), because we have made headway,” he said.
But there have been some long days and nights on the job. Johnson specifically cited a major blizzard in 1993 and the big ice storm of 1998 as occasions when the road crew was pressed into overdrive to keep up with snow plowing and/or debris removal.
Johnson recalled arriving at the town garage during the wee hours of the morning to ensure timely response to an impending snowstorm.
“I’d sleep in that chair to make sure there was someone here to move the (snow) truck out of the barn,” he said, pointing to the thinly padded seat in his office.
“If you’re not here when something bad happens, can you live with yourself?” he said of his motivation for being at the ready.
Johnson said his wife, Cornwall Town Clerk Sue Johnson, has been his rock, sounding board and occasional “administrative secretary” for the service calls that have come in at all hours of the day and night.
“She has been super through all of it,” Johnson said.
Of course it’s been tough for both of them to leave work at the office.
“We do a lot of town business over a cup of coffee in the morning at home,” Johnson said, referring to routine paperwork.
And with Sue presiding in the town offices and Stu patrolling the roads, they’ve covered all the bases in Cornwall.
“We probably know more about what’s going on in Cornwall than virtually anybody,” Johnson said.
Asked what he would miss most about being road commissioner, Johnson cited his good relationship with fellow residents, peers and town officials, as well as plowing snow on a clear, starry night. He won’t miss being on call, which he said has led to “sleeping with one eye open.”
Longtime Cornwall resident and town official Cy Tall said Johnson will be difficult to replace.
“Like most folks, I know nothing about how a road is actually maintained, but in Cornwall, Stu keeps them in great shape,” she said. “I suspect that this is a result of his experience — combined with an ongoing accumulation of the newest techniques, and tempered with a healthy dose of good ol’ common sense.  We’ve been lucky to have him — and we will miss him.”

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