OWOSSO — When city residents don’t know the Department of Public Works water foreman, that’s generally a good thing.
But after last winter’s extreme cold, it’s likely Paul Oberlin is familiar to many citizens for putting in hard work and long hours making sure water mains get repaired quickly when they break.
Oberlin said in one instance, five water mains broke in a single day due to the severe cold last winter.
“It’s a lot of dealing with the snow, climbing down into holes — and you’re going to get cold,” Oberlin said. “But people are counting on us for water. There were literally guys coming in after working for 12 or 16 hours and thinking they were done, but they got called right back in. These guys never stopped. If I could have done it, I would have given each of those guys a vacation.”
Oberlin pointed to the winter of 2014 as an example of what can go wrong when the weather gets extreme. He said the temperature was below freezing for two and a half months straight, and Owosso had 52 water main breaks.
Oberlin joked he’s always on duty and that nothing really bothers him these days due to everything he’s experienced; he only needs a Pepsi in his hand and he promises to pull through.
Without the Pepsi, however, Oberlin makes no guarantee.
Oberlin became the DPW’s water foreman Jan. 31, 2005, and moved to Owosso when he accepted the position. He had grown up in Grand Ledge and attended school there, graduating in 1980, before moving to Ovid and later Oakley as an adult, with several other stops in between.
During that time, Oberlin worked in the private sector. When he was offered a position in Owosso, he couldn’t pass it up. Now he supervises four other DPW employees.
Prior to working in Owosso, he had laid water lines for several years, and he was a Delta Township firefighter for about 10 years.
“I worked for a private company since I was 11 years old laying water mains, fixing breaks, and that kind of stuff. Pretty much my whole life,” Oberlin said.
Oberlin said since the city of Owosso’s water infrastructure is so old, much of what he has learned about the city’s water lines has been by necessity.
Just learning where to go was an issue at first.
“The first couple of times they sent me out, I had no idea where I was going,” Oberlin said. “Luckily the truck I drove had a map in it so I could look it up. After about two years, you get a handle on the addresses and where streets were. Next thing, you know the people. Now I think I know too much.”
Oberlin said the best part of Owosso is the community, and he has ample praise for his co-workers and management, especially City Manager Nate Henne, who often visits the sites of water main breaks.
Oberlin believes Owosso is fortunate to have Henne as its city manager. Oberlin also commended Director of Public Services Glenn Chinavare for getting his employees the equipment they need, when they need it.
“The people that I work with are beyond excellent,” Oberlin added. “When you put 15 guys in a garage for eight to 16 hours a day, you don’t expect to have such a good bond at the garage. It really makes it worth being here, even on the really long nights,” he said. “We’ve had some horrific things happen in this city in the middle of the night that a lot of people don’t even realize what happened. The call goes out and we do the best we can. If it’s really bad, we start making panic calls and hope that the rest of the guys are able to come in and help and get things taken care of in a big hurry. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a group of guys work so hard to make things right.”
Oberlin and his wife Jeanne have been married for 22 years. The couple have five children and 10 grandchildren.
“I love my wife. She’s a great woman, and we have good batch of kids,” Oberlin said. “The grandkids are a handful. I come in the door and see arms flopping and kids yelling, ‘Papa, papa.’”