A life behind the wheel

Randy VanWagner stepped down as the superintendent of the LaGrange County Highway Department after nearly 34 years working for the county. VanWagner started out as a truck driver for the highway department and worked his way up the ladder.

MONGO — When it snows this winter, Randy VanWagner will likely just stand at his home’s front window with a fresh cup of coffee in hand and watch the snow accumulate on the road in front of the house. It’s a luxury he’s not enjoyed in more than three decades.

That’s because, for the first time in nearly 34 years, VanWagner isn’t working for the LaGrange County Highway Department. He officially retired as that department’s superintendent on Oct. 31.

To listen to VanWagner describe his time at the highway department — first as a truck driver, then the assistant foreman, then the foreman before being named the department’s superintendent — few people ever paid much attention to any of the men and women who work at the highway department. That is until something goes wrong. A new pothole springs up in their route to work or snowdrifts block their way to work. Then, VanWagner said, they make themselves known.

VanWagner tells a story about a one-time superintendent of the Kosciusko County Highway Department superintendent who had a fondness for eating his dinner at restaurants in LaGrange County. When asked why, VanWagner said the man told him it was the only way he was able to eat his meals in peace.

“If I eat supper in my town, everyone comes over to tell me about a pothole or other problem with a road,” VanWagner said the man told him.

VanWagner started working at the highway department as a truck driver, assigned to plow the roads around Mongo where VanWagner grew up. He called that a real blessing.

“That was the area I was most familiar with since I grew up there,” he said.

Still, VanWagner explains, plowing snow even on roads you know takes a bit of nerve you only develop after spending a lot of time in the driver’s seat. He estimated it takes at least two years driving a snowplow to learn the subtle changes in every road in your territory. And to be comfortable driving a large truck with a large snow plow down a road you can’t see takes a bit of courage, too.

“You don’t always know where things are when your plowing snow because everything is covered with snow,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t even tell where the edge of the road is.”

Over time, he said, a driver gains enough experience to truly settle comfortably into the job.

“You finally learn where almost everything is, you know where the ditches are so you stay away from them a little bit, and you learn where the drifts are going to be bad and where you can push them back so the next time they don’t drift as bad. I’ve gotten stuck –we all have – it’s part of the job. But after a couple of years plowing snow in the same spots, you begin to have a really good understanding of your territory.”

VanWagner said a good day plowing snow can give a driver a real sense of accomplishment.

“I liked driving a truck. You’re out by yourself and you feel like you’re accomplishing something,” he explained. “There were days when we couldn’t keep up with the weather, but a majority of the time, you go down a road and look back and see you’re accomplishing something. I liked that.”

While the trucks are still the same size as they were when VanWagner started, the technology used in those machines has changed by leaps and bounds.”

“Plowing snow is hard on a truck. It used to be you just started turning a wrench to fix something. Now when you work on a truck, the first thing you do is hook it up a computer to know what’s wrong,” he said.

One technology Van Wagner is very proud of is the county’s method of repairing the damage done to roads by the horses that pull Amish buggies. The technique, called horse troughing, is a specialized process that repaves the indentation created in the asphalt by the constant pounding of horseshoes. Unchecked, those horse troughs as they’re called can create big potholes. The LaGrange County Highway Department has more or less through trial and error pioneered a method to repair those troughs, reengineering equipment for the job. The highway crews have gotten so good at the procedure that they now teach other county highway departments how to make those repairs.

VanWagner won’t say so but it’s easy to tell he’s proud of the years he put in at the highway department.

“I liked the job,” he said. “We had a really good group of guys. Like any job, there were days you didn’t want to come through the door. But overall, I really liked the job.”

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