April 1970 was an historic month in time. The first Earth Day took place. The oxygen tank in Apollo 13 exploded. And The Beatles announced their breakup.
For the City of Yellowknife, it was when Richard Beck, a long-haired 17-year-old walked into the city garage for the first time.
Now 67, Beck reached his 50th year milestone after doing much of the hands-on, perhaps less media-publicized services of overseeing the city’s water and sewer pipe infrastructure as supervisor of water and sewer.
Many residents and co-workers, including the city’s top boss Sheila Bassi-Kellett, offered congratulations for decades of service on the City of Yellowknife’s Facebook page, April 30.
“In April 1970 I started and my uncle Stuart (DeMelt) was the public works foreman,” he said. “The foreman in those days looked after everything. Nowadays there’s the treatment plant, the pumphouse, the roads and sidewalks, the water and sewer. We’re all divided.”
DeMelt, a storied city employee, oversaw an important period of Yellowknife’s development from 1966 to 1975. Beck recalls that DeMelt had been reluctant to give him a job at the time because his dad and brother were already working for the city.
One week, when DeMelt of town, Beck wandered over to the former location of the city garage – now where Ray DeCorby’s Watermark apartments sits – and was given some work installing culverts.
“My uncle came back and he saw me sitting there,” he recalled. “I had long hair. Really long hair and he says to me, ‘Richard, get a frickin’ haircut or don’t come back.’ Guess what? I got a haircut.”
Beck had come from Fort Resolution in 1969 when his family couldn’t find work in the South Slave hamlet. Beck’s father Grant started out as a driller and blaster for the city to put in water and sewer for the city before getting a position at the pumphouse.
Beck looks back fondly at his work over the years. It included clearing brush with Vital Abel at the present-day Canadian Tire site when it was all bush and owned by John Anderson-Thompson. He also spent time driving a truck, loader and backhoe for a couple years. He eventually obtained his engineer’s fifth class ticket to operate boilers so that he could work in the pumphouse for a short period.
“So you jump around and that’s why it makes it easier to last 50 years because you’re not in the same job the whole time,” he said.
Today, he has much more responsibility to residents as he responds to water piping issues.
“These days I really work head-on with the public,” he said. “All of the complaints come to me. All the responsibilities. I talk to the public a lot. All of the freeze ups and everything comes straight to me so I’m always talking to them.”
Chris Greencorn, director of Public Works and Engineering, said Beck’s years of accumulated knowledge is important to the city’s overall operations and care for city pipes, hydrants, valve checks and surface water checks. Beck with his crew of about 10 workers also respond to water breaks in the summer and any need for digging up the city’s pipe network.
“The Yellowknife water system is unique and it is important to constantly keep water moving and circulating it for freeze protection,” Greencorn explained. “You have to have an intimate knowledge of that water flowing and that valves are in the right position. If something goes wrong and a valve is closed, the pipes can freeze.”
Beck said there are a lot of people who come to live in Yellowknife from down south who may not fully appreciate the need to keep water circulating during the cold, subarctic, winter months. This is particularly the case if people are going away on holidays for a long period of time and want to shut their water off.
“The uniqueness of my job has to do with the fact that we have cold weather here,” he explained. “If you live down in Edmonton or Calgary and if you want your water shut off, you have a curb at the property line and (the municipality) will go there and turn your valve off and shut the water shut off.
“Here with the cold weather, the frost goes deep down in the ground so far, so the water has to be circulated all the time. And it’s my job to make sure that it’s circulating properly. If we leave one valve off, you could freeze a whole block and it will cost thousands of dollars to thaw.”
Asked how work has changed over the course of 50 years, Beck said city work has been a lot more compartmentalized and ensuring workers are safe at all times is a much larger day-to-day focus.
“You know, in the old days, you did everything and anything,” he said. “When you would put sand or gravel on the road, you would stand in the back of the truck and then throw it onto the road. Nowadays, safety wouldn’t let you.”
Beck said he had long planned to be able to reach 50 years at the city and will be looking forward to celebrating with family and close friends with an outdoor cookout when public health orders permit. He says he has no plans to retire.
“I did meet my milestone and I set it for 50 years, which was pretty high,” he said, chuckling. “Now that I have my milestone, I’m not going to set it that high because that would be too hard for me. So my new milestone is now only 25 years.”