City engineer Graybill retires

Benny Westcott

Sweet Home engineer Joe Graybill, with his experience as both a city employee and longtime resident, could accurately be called a local institution – a “foundation pillar of the community,” as City Engineering Technician Trish Rice described him.

So when he retired Thursday, Feb. 16, after nearly 27 years on the job, his fellow pillars showered him with praise.

The 64-year-old himself, however, explained that it was simply just time.

“I have some family and church responsibilities I need to take care of,” he said. “Nearly 27 years is a long time to do this kind of work. I tried to do my bit, and that winds down eventually.”

Graybill certainly did more than just a “bit.” For close to three decades, he made sure that new development adhered to city standards, helped fill in missing infrastructure gaps and aided in maintaining and reconstructing the city framework.

“That’s enough to keep one going for a long time,” he said.

However, retiring wasn’t easy after all those years.

“I like to tell people it’s a trap,” he explained. “Because once you get in, there’s so much to do that it’s hard to leave.”

“He’s one of those people that likes to be involved in everything,” said Rice, who worked under Graybill’s supervision for seven years. “Joe is very calm and a good instructor. I could always come to him with questions. He always put me at ease learning what needed to be learned – how to do inspections and interact with customers and everything.”

Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen has served as Graybill’s supervisor since arriving in the city in 2019. However, Larsen said he’s benefitted from the engineer’s voluminous knowledge on matters both local and work-related.

“He made getting adjusted in my job when I first came to town a lot easier,” Larsen said. “Just because he’s there, but also the information is so freely given. It’s not like you have to worry about Joe judging you or thinking you should do something different. He’s just very matter-of-fact and kind in the way he interacts with everyone.

“He has such a long institutional memory of what’s been going on and what’s been done here, both as a resident of Sweet Home and as an employee for the past 27 years,” he added. “It’s helpful to have that knowledge of what’s been done before – not just what was actually done, but what was attempted, and why it may not have gone the way it was planned. And also just knowing who people are has been a huge boon.

“I’ve relied on his engineering expertise pretty heavily when it comes to getting cost estimates figured out and rough designs in place for stuff that we don’t even have a budget for, to get conceptual things together,” he continued. “[He’s] saved the city a lot of money. It’s great to have engineering expertise, and it doesn’t come cheap typically. In this case, the city has gotten a very good deal.”

City Manager Kelcey Young recounted Graybill’s many city projects.

“He has been instrumental with Sankey Park, most of the sidewalk programs and getting the sidewalk almost to the lake along Highway 20,” she said. “He has a ton of historical knowledge that he helps everybody out with. We are really hoping to be able to keep Joe involved in the city, maybe in other committees and things like that.”

Graybill himself said he doesn’t want to “just fade off into the woodwork,” explaining that he’s been asked to participate on the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Art and Culture and the Park and Tree Committee. And he already holds the trustees chairperson title at the Sweet Home United Methodist Church.

Keeping involved in his community is something Graybill has always prioritized. He served on the Sweet Home Economic Development Group’s board of directors, chaired the Sweet Home Area Revitalization Effort (SHARE) Planning Committee (which administers the downtown Commercial Exterior Improvements Program and reports to the SHARE Steering Committee), and served on the Tree Commission, which manages the Street Tree Inventory.

“There’s a lot of ways that people can contribute to the community,” he said. “And I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a day job that allows me to contribute to the community where I grew up. That’s not often done. And just because I’m not working anymore doesn’t mean that I want to stop doing that.”

Raised in Sweet Home, Graybill knew he wanted to get into design and building after taking a mechanical drawing class taught by the late Harold Miner as a freshman at Sweet Home High School.

After graduating in 1976, he went to Linn-Benton Community College for two years, then to Oregon State University for one year and the University of Oregon for a year and a half.

He was a year away from a degree in architecture at the latter school when his mother, Frances, died, leading him to leave school to care for his grandmother, Hilda Sheridan.

In 1989, Graybill took a job at Laketronics in Corvallis, where he worked for a year before re-enrolling in school. He spent two years at LBCC, then two and a half years at OSU, where he received a bachelor of science in civil engineering in 1995 after shifting from architecture.

“At that time in the architectural field, there wasn’t so much of an emphasis on how much things cost,” he explained. “That kind of got to me over the years. So when I went back to school for the second go-round, I wanted something different, a little more exact and accountable. So I went into engineering. And instead of structural engineering I went into civil engineering, which tracks every cost that’s possible to track in an effort to be as efficient as possible.”

After graduating, Graybill became an inspector on road developments and subdivisions for the City of Eugene’s Public Works Department. However, he found the job somewhat boring.

“As an inspector you’re watching other people work,” he said. “That’s OK; it’s part of the job. But I wasn’t interested.”

So when a position became available in his hometown after the death of senior engineering technician Paul Birmingham, Graybill applied. He started in May 1996 under the former job title, which was changed 10 years ago to staff engineer. (The work, however, remained the same).

So what kept Graybill going for nearly 27 years?

“For me personally, it was having a lot of things accomplished and a lot of things done,” he said. “That’s fun to do. Not everybody has that opportunity, but I did. I enjoyed doing it. The job tends to lend itself to longevity, because it’s such a varied job. There are so many different things to do. We do a lot for the whole community. It never can be a single-function boring job. There’s just no way. There are too many things going on.

When asked to pinpoint his proudest achievements, Graybill points to Sankey Park, replacing waterlines through town, a potential grant for Safe Routes to School on Mountain View Road near Sweet Home Junior High and current upgrade work on the Mahler Water Reclamation Facility.

He also speaks of sidewalks, being a proponent of the feature in general.

“I’m a big fanatic,” he said. “Bike lanes and sidewalks. When we can get them, I’ve always tried to put them in.”

The sidewalk along Long Street and Holley Road. The sidewalk along Hwy. 20 from 55th Ave. east to Foster Lake. He’s especially proud of the latter.

“That’s one I have worked for 10 to 12 years on – applying, getting denied, applying, getting denied, rescoping it – and then finally getting it awarded by the state to use most of their money along with some of the city’s,” he said. “I am so happy that the sidewalk got in there. Because Sweet Home has a lake, for heaven’s sake – a beautiful lake, that’s very popular – and yet we have had a lack of access to get there if somebody is on a bicycle or on foot. So getting that sidewalk out there was a long-term goal.”

And Graybill’s no stranger to long-term goals.

“In my job, you’ve got to have a long-time horizon,” he said. “Projects take a long time. It’s very difficult to get closure.”

Graybill has watched both the city organization and community as a whole change in his professional and personal lifetime.

“I know that the city government and functions have changed and become more efficient,” he said. “We’re getting a lot done. And I think the city community of everybody here is more optimistic and community minded. Not that I’m throwing the past history under the bus, but I think that there’s more of a positive growth mindset for people.

“We are growing,” he continued. “It’s not a stagnant community at all. It’s a pretty nice place. When you can drive down Holley Road from the Oak Terrace intersection and look straight ahead and see Mount Jefferson in the distance and the logger statue there at the museum with its new roof over it, and it all lines up with the roadway – that kind of stuff is good for the community.”

Also good: the basic infrastructure Graybill helped put in place for so many years, services and functions people often take for granted.

“If you didn’t have clean water, wastewater infrastructure, and an easy and safe place to walk, it would be a lot more difficult,” he said.

He described the favorite part of his job as “working with the people that I worked with. I know that’s a common saying, but it’s also true. Because you work with your coworkers to come to a common goal of providing a service to a customer. And that customer could be a new homeowner or a commercial business. Finding a solution to a problem is really the most fun that I had.”

Ask Graybill about the hardest part of the job, and he’s stumped.

“There wasn’t really a hard part to anything, because I enjoyed coming to work,” he said, “which is kind of unusual to say for almost a 27-year job. But anything that’s hard is a challenge, and a challenge to me is something to overcome. So I really didn’t have much in the way of problems.”

Graybill has spent the last few weeks imparting knowledge to his successor, Ryan Wade. Wade was previously an apprentice electrician and installation technician in Texas and a stormwater intern for the city of Salem, according to his LinkedIn.

In his free time now that he’s retired, Graybill expects he’ll work in his yard and take care of his wife, Anne Mehn. Otherwise, he likes staying busy and accomplishing things, which was evident during his time with the city as well.

“I really enjoyed the design process – making something happen,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always viewed myself doing: filling a gap where there’s something missing and finding an answer where there isn’t (one).”

And an important part of reaching solutions is the brainstorming process.

“There’s other people that will make that solution happen, but somebody, and somebodies, have to work that through and come up with the idea – make it feasible and practical – and then others can carry that forward and actually build it on the ground,” Graybill said. “I don’t actually build anything, but I know people that do.”

While Graybill may say he doesn’t “actually build anything,” he really did build something quite remarkable during his time with the city of Sweet Home: a 27-year legacy that will be hard to replace.

Perhaps Rice put it best as she sat in City Hall next to Graybill’s old desk.

“We’re going to miss him,” she said.