Last year, I dedicated this column to giving thanks to all the truck-based services we rely on every day, from mail delivery to electric and gas service fleets. This year, I want to talk about the heroes behind the scenes — the fleet managers and mechanics responsible for keeping fire trucks, police cars, snowplows and other important vehicles up and running.
After the horrible terrorist attacks committed against America on September 11, it's pretty apparent that we are a nation full of heroes. The bravery displayed by New York City's firefighters, police, construction workers and others, along with their brethren at the Pentagon in Washington D.C., showed us what being a hero is all about.
Webster's defines a hero as someone “admired for his achievements and qualities.” Such traits can be found in abundance among the people on the front line, as well as the ones behind the lines. In acknowledging those supporting players, I'd like to use Blair Kinker as an example.
Kinker is a 33-year employee in the equipment division at the Virginia Dept. of Transportation (VDOT). During his career, he's had to do a lot of thankless tasks — maintaining equipment, repairing highways, and clearing snow by the ton. Without efforts like his, the state of Virginia would grind to a halt. But like many state DOTs, the VDOT gets no respect from the public.
Kinker began as a mechanic and worked his way up, now serving as the right-hand man for Erle Potter, chief of VDOT's equipment division — which maintains 31,500 pieces of equipment at 83 facilities scattered across the state. That alone is a daunting task, but when you combine it with tight fiscal controls, government specification requirements and politics, it gets even tougher.
“I often tell people that my days of working on the line were the happiest of my career — you came in, did your job, and went home,” Kinker told me recently. “Now I work longer hours and carry my laptop home to do work on the weekend.”
Yet he sticks with it — despite the fact that the mechanic shortage means he could probably get a job in the private sector for good money and less stress. That's why Kinker and thousands like him across America deserve recognition for the jobs they do. They're the ones who make sure fire trucks, snowplows and other equipment are ready to roll when disaster strikes.
“I stay for a couple of reasons,” he said. “One is pride. I feel that I do a good job, and I support the people doing their jobs in the field. Also, I have a loyalty to the department for what they've done for me.”
But the biggest reason he stays is the mechanics and managers he works with every day. “Our mechanics take care of not only VDOT equipment, but equipment for 200 other state agencies,” Kinker explained. “Many of those operators will drive out of their way to go to a particular shop where they have good relationships with our people. I'm proud of that.”
Kinker doesn't plan to stop working on vehicles anytime soon. He recently set up a 24×70-ft. garage with 12-ft. ceilings behind his home. That's where he plans to restore a 1965 Mustang and two '60s-era Chevrolet pickups.
His has been a remarkable career. But like many in the maintenance field, it's one that flies below the radar. Kinker doesn't mind the lack of attention. He feels that a mechanic's skills speak for themselves. “Our trucks here at VDOT get into rough stuff year 'round; they ride on our reputation to keep them going. That's what's important.”