KEARNEY — Two men who helped build Kearney’s infrastructure for decades have passed.
Gary Lawson, who served as the city’s streets superintendent for 41 years died Aug. 20. Richard “Dick” Ritter, who worked as the city’s water and sewer superintendent for 32 years, died Aug. 12.
Lawson served the city from 1974 until his retirement in March of 2015.
According to a proclamation issued by Mayor Randy Pogue, Lawson helped “to construct and maintain the city’s streets and stormwater systems and constructing many improvements in the city parks.” Lawson was especially known for quick clearance of snow from roadways during inclement weather.
“Gary Lawson always met the unexpected challenges of his position with a smile and a winning determination,” states the proclamation
Before Lawson retired in 2015, he sat down with the Courier-Tribune for an interview. As one of the city’s first full-time employees, Lawson said he did a little bit of everything.
“I did the water plant, the streets with Dick Ritter, was a dog catcher, did parks, was building inspector, I helped as a volunteer with the fire department and worked the Jesse James Festival for 40 years,” he said. “I also helped build the jail cells with Frank Vernon. He was the first police chief.”
Fellow longtime city employee Jay Bettis, the city’s current utilities director, said Lawson was a mentor to him when he started working for the city back in the 1970s.
“Gary was like a second dad to me. … I was actually around him more in my adult life than my own dad. Gary meant a lot to me,” he said.
City Administrator Jim Eldridge, who worked alongside Lawson for more than three decades, said Lawson was dedicated.
“He loved what he did for the city and was very loyal in his work for the city,” said Eldridge, adding Lawson was responsible for building the city’s disc golf course in Jesse James Park and dug more than 1,000 post holes in the city during his tenure.
Like he did from Lawson, Bettis said he learned a “tremendous deal” from Ritter. Ritter was the city’s first full-time employee. He retired in 2004. Before retirement, Ritter implemented a modern touch read metering data collection system for the city’s water and sewer system, oversaw planning and construction of the city’s water plant improvements along with water lines and water towers that helped the city grow from a population of 1,000 to more than 5,000.
A proclamation issued to Ritter and his family after his passing by the mayor states Ritter “devoted his life to public service.”
“Dick, I learned a lot from him about water and sewer,” said Bettis. “... I worked with Dick for 27 years, and he taught me a great deal.”
Eldridge said Ritter, who he worked with for 24 years, took his job so seriously that he missed his own 20-year anniversary party city staff held for him at Stroud’s restaurant because he stayed late to fix a water leak.
“He was hands on,” said Eldridge.
Both Ritter and Lawson, Eldridge and Bettis said, will be sorely missed.
“If not for them, I wouldn’t be prepared to do the job I have today as utilities director,” said Bettis. “When I retire Dec. 31, I’ll owe them a great debt.”
“They were part of my work family,” Eldridge said. “... They were fine people. I feel for their families and I’m sorry for them leaving us so soon.”