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After four decades, Prusak retires from city

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While he was born into a family of engineers, the thing Jim Prusak has enjoyed most about his four decades at the helm of the Cloquet Public Works department is helping people.

“The primary role in my position is helping people who have problems,” said Prusak in an interview last Friday. “Sewer problems. Water problems. Flooding problems. That’s what we do every day, help people who have problems. When you do that, it’s fulfilling and most people are thankful.

“I remember times when I first started, I’d be lying in bed and it would start raining, and I’m like, ‘How long until the telephone rings?’ You’d hear the rain pounding on the roof and know there would be problems. People would call, the sewer was geysering out of the floor drains in their basements. We had problems like that in several areas of town. Not anymore. We’ve fixed those issues. There are still some flooding problems, but we’ve fixed a lot of them over the years.”

On Friday, June 3, Prusak will retire from his job as city engineer/director of public works for the city of Cloquet, where he’s worked for 40 years, eight months and nine days.

It’s been a long time.

Floyd Jaros was mayor when Prusak was hired by then-City Engineer Bruce Boyer. Prusak was 23 years old, and had graduated from the University of Minnesota in June 1976. The civil engineer major had made a few token efforts to find jobs, mostly near Duluth and the Iron Range because he loved hunting and fishing and everything outdoors.

“I got no offers, but I was busy enjoying my summer, then fall came and hunting season and before you know it, it’s Thanksgiving,” the still easy-going Prusak said.

A little worried now, Prusak went to the placement office at the U, where he spied a notice advertising for an assistant city engineer in Cloquet.

“I must have driven through Cloquet six or seven times,” he said. “But I’d never thought of applying there. I admit, I got pretty excited.”

Then he saw the deadline for applications: Oct. 15. He called anyway and got an interview, then a second interview with Boyer. He pointed out that it certainly helped his case when Boyer saw he’d listed Duluth’s Julius Fred Wolf, a family friend, as a reference on his resume. Wolf would take Jim and his brothers on canoe trips into the Boundary Waters, was a World War II veteran and an avid historian of local ships, fires, outlaws and more.

“To me, [knowing Fred] cinched the deal,” Prusak said. “Not that I wasn’t the best candidate, right?”

He got the job, at age 23, and never left. After working with Boyer for four years, Prusak took the state exam and passed it. A short time later, in 1980, Boyer retired and Jim stepped into his shoes, at the ripe old age of 27.

He notes that Cloquet has been good to him. He has worked at a job he truly enjoys, met his wife on the job (more on that later) and they raised two children here.

And he’s been good to Cloquet, according to City Administrator Brian Fritsinger, who has worked with Prusak for the past 17 years. While Prusak taught Fritsinger a lot about certain aspects of engineering and public works that the city administrator had not been exposed to at previous jobs, Fritsinger said Prusak’s personal qualities have stood out even more over the years of calamities and irate taxpayers.

“Jim has been a constant reminder that at times it is important to remember to be patient and calm when dealing with issues which at times can be very emotional,” Fritsinger said. “Combining that approach with a philosophy that believes that less government is better I think has served our residents well over his long tenure.”

But Prusak isn’t always calm, he adds with a smile.

“He’s probably just as passionate about fishing and hunting as he is about engineering, but he will lose a bit of that calmness when he is telling the tale about that record breaking sturgeon or walleye he fought for hours before wrestling it into the boat,” Fritsinger said.

For his part, Prusak said he handles highly emotional people by simply being straightforward.

“I tell people: ‘I’m just here to help you. If you want me to go away, I’ll go away. But looking around the room, I’m the only guy standing here today that’s offering to help you,” he explained in his usual patient, logical, kindly and yet humorous manner. “So if you want to insult me and tell me to get off your property, I’ll go away. But if you want some help, I’m here to help you. We’ll do what we can do. Can’t say we’ll fix everything, can’t say it’ll be for free, but … there’s probably a number of options we can look at.”

He tells a story about a woman who was paying $500 a month for her water bill. Prusak sent her a letter, letting her know the city could come out and try to help her figure out what was wrong, but she would never contact him. She paid that bill for 12 months.

“Finally I just sent a letter telling her if she didn’t call us or get it fixed, we were going to cut off her water,” he said, noting that this was a “high needs” resident but offering no further details other than that she lived alone. “Well, she got a plumber in and he fixed it in a day, taking her bill to about $20 a month.”

There are plenty of stories of the less fortunate, and it’s easy to see those are the memories that stick with Prusak. The guy in a shack who slept under blankets and a layer of cardboard, the woman who complained her water was rusty … and Prusak found she recycled even her dish water by pouring it down the back of the toilet and explained she wasn’t using enough water to keep the pipes flushed out.

One of the things Prusak is most proud of is something few newer residents know about, unless they work for Sappi Fine Papers.

“In terms of my job and position, probably the biggest responsibility we had and still have is the operation of the Lake Superior waterline,” said Prusak. “We pump 10 to 12 million gallons of water a day to the paper mill. Without that water, they wouldn’t be here. They need lots of water.”

Prusak explained the pipeline was built in the early 1970s — long before the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was signed, which limits who or what can take water from any of the Great Lakes — before he arrived in Cloquet. The water line extends two miles out into Lake Superior off Park Point and carries water from Lake Superior through 24 miles of pipeline under the Superior Harbor and the St. Louis River, through two major pump stations and all the way to Cloquet.

“We operate with our own personnel and do our own repairs,” Prusak said proudly. “If we had a leak, we’d be ready to go in half an hour now. I remember some of the first leaks I went on, we didn’t know what we were doing. Today there’s nobody who can fix that pipe faster or better than us. We’ve had a lot of experience fixing that pipe over the years.

“So I’m pretty proud of that. We’ve got some excellent utility crews. But you learn from experience, and we definitely learned.”

Half of the $8 million project was paid for by a federal grant, which was originally a partnership between the city of Cloquet, Northwest Paper Company and the city of Superior, who were going to be the primary users of the water. Since then Superior has developed its own water source.

“The last 20 years it’s been the paper company — Northwest Paper, Potlatch, now Sappi — and the city of Cloquet,” Prusak said, explaining that the paper mill had to find a water source other than the St. Louis River, which is still a secondary, and much more limited, water source for the mill, an additional 2 to 4 million gallons a day. “[The pipeline] is an operation that few cities have and for the size of Cloquet, it’s a HUGE operation.”

Still, perhaps one of the best things Prusak found while he was on the job was his wife, Dona. It was about 1978, and he was still assistant city engineer, when the city offered to lease the old Knife Falls town hall to the school district to use for a new program they were developing called the Carlton Youth Program.

“It was an early version of what they call alternative ed, now,” he explains. “They had a teacher, a social worker and a probation officer.”

The first winter in the building, the water pipes froze and Boyer sent Jim and a crew out to thaw it out.

“Two weeks later, my boss tells me, ‘You’ve got to go back out there, the sewer’s backing up.’ Well the septic system was frozen. There’s nothing worse than having a room full of wild kids and no bathroom, no water. So we got that fixed.

“The next spring the teacher calls me up, the roof is leaking. I went there with a crew and we got it fixed up. I got to be close friends with Mickey Singpiel (the probation officer) and Fred Koskakola (the social worker) and the teacher, who had moved here to teach these kids.”

Then he smiles.

“Long story short, a few years later, I married the teacher, Dona Stanton,” he said. “We’ll be married 35 years in June.”

He and Dona had two kids, two years apart, Matt and Lynzi. Now grown, married and with kids of their own, Prusak said Matt’s a motorhead and works as a senior design engineer for Polaris and Lynzi manages a farm co-op store.

He’s looking forward to spending more time with his family in retirement, but hints that he may not be done working yet. He will retain his engineer’s license, and continue to do some consulting work. He will also fish and hunt and camp with Dona.

He said he’s confident that his successor, Caleb Peterson (whom the City Council recently approved as interim public works director and who has worked with Jim for the past eight years), is a good choice.

“Caleb reminds me a lot of myself as a young engineer, although he came to Cloquet with a little more experience than I had,” Prusak said. “City works were nothing new to him, but I think he’s learned a lot since he came here too. He’ll do just fine.”

For his part, Peterson said he will miss Prusak.

“It will certainly be a difficult adjustment for public works when he leaves as he takes a lot of experience and knowledge with him,” Peterson said, adding that Prusak has been a “great boss and mentor.”

“I just appreciate the time he’s put in to help me learn and grow in my career path.”

That should be music to Prusak’s ears.

“I like to help people and I like to help them be good at doing those things themselves,” a thoughtful Prusak said during the interview. “Training, teaching — that’s all part of this job.

“I could point to all kinds of projects, things we build and fix, but quite honestly, I’m really happy with the personnel and the departments that we’ve developed over the last 40 years. We do stuff now we never did 40 years ago, and we’re good at it.”