By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
In May 1974, several life-changing events occurred for Jerry Lochner: he married his sweetheart, Lynda, moved from Pierz to Little Falls and was hired full-time by the city of Little Falls
Forty years later, he is retiring from his position as director of public works for the city, but celebrated a significant anniversary with his wife and intends to stay at home in Little Falls.
When Lochner was first hired by the city, it was a part-time position.
He attended St. Cloud Technical College for municipal engineering, the only course open to him when he was looking to get out of the meat-packing job he held.
“I had had a few other oddball jobs and at Landy Packing and it was good money in those days, but I knew I wasn’t going to do that for the rest of my life,” said Lochner.
He initially wanted to sign up for a carpentry class, but they were full; so were the machinist classes.
He was told the only opening was in a new course called municipal engineering. “I’ll take it,” he told the school.
He was finishing school when he was hired for the part-time job with the city. “In 1974, that education came into good use,” he said.
It wasn’t long before Jerry Fabian, the city engineer at that time, asked Lochner to become the engineering assistant and would take over those duties. “That surprised me,” said Lochner. “Now I had to take care of the parks and community services was just created.”
At that time, Lochner said, the city hired the summer staff for summer programs through Community Services. The next year, Myron Ahle was hired and the city didn’t have the responsibility of hiring summer program staff “But we still took care of the facilities and parks,” said Lochner.
Before long, Fabian asked him to run the street department until someone else was found to do it.
“I told him I had no idea what to do on the street department,” said Lochner. “Fabian said, ‘They’ll tell you what to do,’” said Lochner. “I was 24 in those days. I walked into the street department the first day and told them ‘whatever you did yesterday, do that today again’ — and they laughed.”
Lochner learned what it took to take care of the street department, from blading roads to fixing potholes, flushing and cleaning sewers and more.
When Fabian left and the city hired another engineer, Lochner remained the assistant engineer and continued to supervise the parks department and street department. “I did that for 10 years, the city never changed it,” he said.
The ball fields in west Little Falls, formerly known as Jaycee Park and the Kiwanis ball field were all built by city crews. “They weren’t there in 1973,” said Lochner.
Ball was played behind Little Falls Machine at the time, but the business expanded and purchased that block.
“The other areas were swamps and had been filled in from the dirt from Highway 27,” said Lochner. “But we just leveled it off and the Jaycees bought the one block of land that became Jaycee Park.”
When the Jaycees left, the land was donated to the city. The block next to it was purchased and in went the Kiwanis ball field.
His titles changed over the years, but his supervision was over nearly every part of the city except the police and fire departments and the administrative side. But for two years, he, as public works director and Lori Kasella, the finance director, served as co-city administrators to save the city money, before a part-time city administrator was hired.
Lochner said the city moved away from a city engineer in the 1980s, the only time the city laid employees off. The city engineer was never replaced.
That’s when his title was “manager of city services.”
All of a sudden, he said, he was managing sewer and water departments, along with the streets and parks. “Then later came the airport,” he said.
“There’s always a learning curve,” he said. “You learn every day.”
Over the years he’s taken courses in public works at conventions. But one of the best courses Lochner said he ever took was the Dale Carnegie course.
Fabian asked him to take it and Lochner even had to pay half of the $250 for it. “This was back in 1974 and you were making $1.60 an hour,” he said. But take it he did.
He left Carnegie’s “Golden Book” in his top drawer, for use by his replacement, Greg Kimman.
Some of the lessons learned in the Carnegie course included “How you treat people. How you stop worrying. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, but the fact is that a person has to adjust,” said Lochner. “When you look back at it, the problems became bigger, more dollars were involved, but it’s the very same as the first day you came here — how you treat people how you want to work with people and get things done.”
The city has nearly doubled in size during Lochner’s 40 years, meaning many more miles of road, sewers and water mains.
The project Lochner is most proud of is the zoo. He said in the mid-1980s the Park Board and City Council decided to keep the zoo. “We spent years visiting other zoos and laying out drawings and what we could use and how could we lay it out,” he said.
“I think the zoo is just a beautiful asset for the community,” he said.
Challenges came with bringing water and sewer to areas of the city that had been annexed. “Most people don’t realize what goes with that and maintaining that day in and day out,” he said. “We all turn on the faucet and we expect to get water and when we flush the toilet, it better work.
“When it doesn’t work, like this past winter, we learned what we take for granted,” he said.
It takes the many dedicated workers in the city to make that a reality for the community.
Lochner said his replacement, Kimman, a lifelong resident of Little Falls, and a licensed engineer for 14 years, will be a benefit to the city.
“I feel very, very fortunate,” said Lochner. “I’ve been blessed 100 times over. When you got people at the street department and water and wastewater departments, who are just plain good workers.”
He’ll miss the people the most — those he worked with day in and day out and those in the community.
“Ninety-nine percent of people come in and when you explain the project to them and explain why you do it or not do it, most people say, ‘oh that makes sense,’” he said. “There are always exceptions … but most of the people are appreciative.”
Current City Administrator Dan Vogt, who did his college internship in Little Falls in 1977-78, remembered meeting Lochner back then.
“I was impressed with his commitment to the city and work ethic. He has been an invaluable resource to me during my short time here as city administrator and he is already sorely missed,” said Vogt. “If the human brain was like a computer, I’d like to do a brain dump to get all the data in there that relates to the city.”
A co-worker and friend for more than 30 years, Kasella said she has enjoyed every moment.
“Jerry’s dedication to the city and its residents is undeniable,” she said. Kasella ticked off just a couple of the things that made Lochner a city asset.
“He has a passion for the zoo and parks system; his knowledge in engineering, streets, water, wastewater departments; his ability to deal with the public, his can do attitude; the list goes on and on. The institutional knowledge Jerry carries with him will be hard to replace,” she said.
Since he left his duties, Lochner has been fishing at Red Lake with his brothers and father. He intends to do more of that.
Already involved in the Little Falls Lions and Bethel Lutheran Church, he doesn’t intend to get too much more involved this year. Instead, he’ll focus on projects around the house that he’s let go over the years.
The Lochners have two children, a daughter, Rachel who is married to Joe, and a son, Ben, married to Jenny, and six grandchildren. The kids live hundreds of miles away in Oshkosh, Wis. and Omaha, Neb., so they have some traveling to do.
Whether he meant on the road or in life, he said, “Lynda and I travel well together.”