A county public-works director must be well-versed in engineering, the price of road salt, building design, park planning, road construction and accounting principles, among other things.
But the keys to the job, according to Don Theisen, Washington County’s longtime director of public works, are hard work and customer service – skills he said he learned working at his family’s business, Lendway’s Lounge in St. Paul.
The bar and restaurant, which Theisen’s maternal great-grandfather opened in 1937 at the northeast corner of Dale and University, closed in 2003. Theisen, who grew up on St. Paul’s East Side, started working for his parents, Igy and Sharon Theisen, when he was 12.
“One day I was being grouchy bartending, and my dad told me, ‘Son, no one comes in here wanting to feel worse when they leave,’” Theisen said. “I remembered that every time someone called me, came into my office, or took the time to come to a public meeting.”
Theisen retires Monday after 34 years of public service.
His first job in public works was for Ramsey County. “When I was 15, I got a job mowing grass around guardrails,” he said. “It was my first exposure to a highway department, and something obviously stuck.”
During the three summers he worked for Ramsey County, Theisen said he learned that he “could make a difference.”
“Even if you’re just mowing grass around guardrails – it’s like painting a room, all of a sudden you go, ‘Wow, I accomplished something,’” he said. “Emptying garbage cans in a park after a busy Saturday, you can see the next day that people were enjoying the park.”
Theisen graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in civil engineering and moved to Southern California to work for a soils engineering company. After three years of living and working outside Los Angeles, he decided to return to Minnesota. “I knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to raise a family,” he said.
He learned about an opening in Chisago County – the assistant county engineer position – and he decided to apply. “I didn’t know anything about highway engineering, but I applied and got the job,” he said. “Six months later, the county engineer who hired me moved back up north, and I got the county engineer job at the age of 27. They had faith, I guess.”
Theisen moved to Taylors Falls, Minn., and joined the city’s volunteer fire department. His favorite place to eat in town was The Drive In Restaurant, which was owned by the sister-and-brother team of Gail and Wade Vitalis, but Theisen didn’t realize they were siblings.
“I’m a big fan of cheeseburgers and root beer, so I went there all the time,” he said. “I said to one of my buddies on the fire department, ‘It’s too bad Gail Vitalis is married to Wade,’ and he looked at me like I was stupid. He said, ‘You’re an idiot. They’re brother and sister; they’re not married.”
Don and Gail married on Feb. 1, 1992, and have two daughters.
Theisen went to work for Washington County in 1992 as deputy director of public works/assistant county engineer. He worked for Dakota County as county engineer from 1998 to 2001 before returning to Washington County as county engineer and deputy director of public works. He was named public works director in May 2005.
“I’ve been fortunate in that every commissioner has always been very respectful,” Theisen said. “If you don’t have respect in an organization, it’s just a horrible place to work. I’ve always felt that if you work hard and do your job, everything else will take care of itself.”
Theisen said he is especially proud of his work on projects “that made a difference in how the county did business.” The Olinda Trail project in Scandia, for example, was the first county road project where the community was heavily involved in the design, he said.
“Community engagement is messy and hard, but we always end up with a better project,” he said. “Since that project almost 30 years ago, we have not had a single resident come to a county board meeting to voice concerns over any road design.”
Theisen oversaw the construction of the county’s service centers in Forest Lake and Cottage Grove and the $59.6 million expansion of the Washington County Government Center in Stillwater, which included a five-story courts building and a three-story addition to the law-enforcement center. “We probably relocated every county employer over a three-year period for at least a little bit of time,” he said.
Theisen’s legacy will be “the team of professionals he has established in the public-works department,” Commissioner Gary Kriesel said. “The quality that we get out of that area is unbelievably good.”
Said Commissioner Fran Miron: “Don leads with such integrity. He has tremendous trust in the people who work with him, and he’s got such a good sense of humor about it all. We’re going to miss Don, but, fortunately, he has people within his department who have tremendous skill sets and strong work ethics and really care about the county and the people we serve.”
County Engineer Wayne Sandberg said Theisen was a master at “coaching and mentoring staff to help them grow and develop.”
“One of the things Don asked me years ago was, ‘Wayne, what do you think your legacy will be in this business?’ I started to name off projects that we were doing,” Sandberg said. “He said, ‘You know, it’s not going to be the projects. It’s the people you leave behind; it’s the people you help build.’ I think that’s really one of his legacies now if you look at our department and the people he’s leaving behind. I think we’re in a really good spot.”
Post-retirement, Theisen said he plans to travel south for a couple of weeks and then start volunteering in the community. Among the organizations he plans to help: Changing Gaits, an equine-assisted addiction-therapy facility near Brook Park, Minn., that a friend of Theisen’s founded and runs.
“I’ve been fortunate and blessed and have gotten so much from the community, so any extra time I have is going to be spent giving back to the community,” he said. “It’s going to be very easy to give back.”