Kearney — After 41 years of emergency calls in the middle of the night for snow removal, burst water lines and sewer backups, Kearney Utilities Director Jay Bettis will no longer be on call after Dec. 31.
Bettis, the longest tenured city employee, is marking his retirement at the end of 2019.
Bettis’ affiliation with serving the people of Kearney and elsewhere in Clay County began when he was a teen. He has been a volunteer firefighter/medic, policeman who founded the Explorers program to train youth in police procedures and job skills, water plant laborer, sewer plant worker, snow plow driver, all-around emergency repairman and park ranger at Smithville Lake.
“He is one of a kind. They broke the mold when they made him,” Alderman Gerri Spencer said of Bettis’ dedication to the city.
“He’s done Watson Drive for us, all kinds of different and major infrastructure projects. … He has a great work ethic. He comes out at night, on weekends, all hours of the day. He does it all.”
City Administrator Jim Eldridge said he couldn’t tabulate how many hours Bettis has put in over the years.
“Many thousands,” he estimated. “He’s helped build the water tower, water and sewer plant expansions, the west creek line extension, gotten up in the middle of the night for water line breaks. … He’s had to spend nearly 24 hours a day worrying about the city for all those years. He’s been on-call almost all those 41 years, it’s pretty amazing really.”
Eldridge said many don’t know all the work Bettis has done for the city because most of it is behind the scenes or takes place when others are unaware.
“I remember one year there was a flood at the lift station and him and Dick Ritter ran it. … It was a disaster that could’ve been much worse if not for them,” said Eldridge. “I was sleeping when it happened, as happens a lot with his work, and I heard about it after. There are lots of issues that people don’t think of that he has a direct hand in repairing.”
In addition to keeping Kearney city services up and running, in the little personal time he has after spending thousands of hours on the clock for Kearney, Bettis pastors a Cowboy Church service at his High Point Arena, offers therapeutic riding services with his horses at the arena facility in Holt and has been involved in large philanthropic endeavors in the Kansas City region through the Fox4 Love Fund for Kids, which saw him build a bunkhouse for youth campers at Kelsey Short campground at Smithville Lake.
“I’ve had a blessed life, I really have,” he said. “I love being able to get out there and do the things I do for the city and work with the people and the kids. I’ve been really blessed so I feel I should give back.”
One of those he has given back to is now mayor. Randy Pogue was one of Bettis’ first recruits in the city police department’s Explorer program.
“I was one of the first charter members of the Explorers program so I’ve known Jay for years. The one thing you can guarantee in life is Jay Bettis,” he said. “He’s somebody you can always count on and I’ve learned a lot from him in a great many ways through the years. It’s been a great experience getting to work with him as mayor and I’m excited for him and his retirement.”
Eldridge, who has worked alongside Bettis and for the city for 39 years, said his appreciation for Bettis goes beyond work. The two are also close friends. Neither man can talk about there years of serving the city together and what they mean to each other without becoming a bit emotional, said Bettis.
“I’m going to miss that the most, walking in the back door and going into Jim’s office every morning to talk about issues,” Bettis said, adding everyone at City Hall has become family to him.
“We’ve had a great, great working relationship and I regret that it has to come to an end,” Eldridge said.
Shirley Zimmerman, city water clerk and board secretary, is another longtime co-worker and friend of Bettis. She has known him for 35 years and volunteers with him to drive children to Cowboy Church on the weekends.
“Whether he’s at work or volunteering, he’s a lot the same way. We joke and cut up whether we’re at work or not. .. I support he and his guys in the field and he supports me in the office. We’ve got each other’s backs,” she said. “He’s a good friend too, otherwise I wouldn’t have had him for one for 35 years.”
“I wouldn’t have survived without Shirley’s good work,” Bettis said of Zimmerman.
Bettis said his 41 years with the city meant personal sacrifice of time with his family, but he’s “never, ever dreaded coming to work.”
“Not a lot of people get to say that. I just want everyone to know that I really appreciate the people of Kearney and it has been an honor for me for them to let me have the opportunity with the city that I’ve had.”