McCullagh to retire as Laurel Public Works director

After seven years as Laurel Public Works director, Paul McCullagh says it's time to retire

When one of the worst blizzards of the decade hit Laurel in 2010, dumping as much as 40 inches of snow in some areas, Laurel Department of Public Works Director Paul McCullagh was on the job around the clock.

In spite of being snowed in at his home, McCullagh found a way to be in his office throughout Snowmageddon, as the storm came to be was called.

"I walked through two feet of snow to get to a point where my guys could plow a path to pick me up so I could be here to work with them," McCullagh said. "I set up an Army cot in my office to sleep on until we got it all cleaned up."

Public Works Deputy Director Rob Ferree said McCullagh could be a bit stubborn about being on site during snow storms when department crews spent long days and nights plowing, dealing with power outages and other emergencies. But during one snow storm, Ferree kind of tricked McCullagh into taking a break.

"I took him home and then I kept his car so he wouldn't come back," Ferree said. "I told him when he'd gotten some rest I'd come back and get him. Wanting to be here at times like that is the kind of leadership he always showed us."

It's the kind of leadership Ferree and others in city government say they're going to miss when the 76-year-old McCullagh retires Oct. 31.

After seven years as director, McCullagh said it's time to retire so he and his wife, Jan, can spend time with their grandchildren. He said for so long, his career, which took him all over the world, made it impossible for him to spend a lot of time with his grandchildren when they were growing up.

With a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's in finance, McCullagh's jobs have include managing a seaport construction project in Saigon and overseeing major military construction projects in the Indian Ocean, Guam, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"My first wife, who died of a brain aneurysm after we were married 32 years, and I have five grandchildren and they're grown. My second wife, Jan's grandchildren are 3- and 5-years-old and they live in New Jersey, so the only way to spend time with them is to move there. We bought a house that's 10 blocks from them in New York, [in] New Jersey." McCullagh said.

His staff said his retirement is well deserved, but they are going to miss McCullagh, who they describe as easy going, but firm, especially when it comes to cursing — it's not allowed in the office. They said he always keeps his door open to everybody, takes notes during those meetings and always follows up.

"He listens to all sides always before reaching a decision, is always fair and doesn't show favoritism in the work environment," Ferree said. "I tried to convince him to stay on a while and I think everybody here wanted him to stay because he's done an outstanding job as director."

Michelle Blair, the department's office manager, also tried to persuade McCullagh to stay longer. She said he created a supportive work environment for his employees.

"He worked with people's strengths and is not a micro manager on projects," Blair said. "He put a lot of trust in us. He knows what we can bring to the table and lets us do it. He always has our backs and that makes you want to give 110 percent. I'll miss him."

City engineer Christy Fang, who works in a position McCullagh created when he became director, described him as knowledgeable, easy to work with and a good mentor.

"He loves giving us opportunities and encourages us to try new things," said Fang, who's brought in more than $240,000 in grants for the city's bike paths. "When I brought the grant applications to him, he said, 'Let's do it and see what happens.' He's great."

From volunteer to director

McCullagh came to the department as a volunteer in 2001 when he was president of a local construction management company. He joined First Baptist Church that year, at a time when the church was designing a new building on 35 acres outside of the city near Van Dusen Road. As a member of the church's building committee, McCullagh worked on getting building permits and approached city officials about annexing the site, which they did.

"I got to know the mayor and others and they said they could use my help on the $1.4 million construction of the Public Works building so I came on board as a volunteer. That led to a full time position in 2002 and then they asked me to be the director when Ted Delaney retired," McCullagh said. "I thought I'd be director for two years and ended up being here seven."

During those years, McCullagh had a major hand in numerous projects, from the department's office building and upgrading traffic lights to make them generator-ready during power outages, to the new mall and the installation of period street lighting on Main Street.

"Paul was the leading force in getting those traditional street lights installed on Main Street," said Mayor Craig Moe in announcing McCullagh's retirement. "He also played a major role in the purchase and conversion of the former First Baptist Church and school into a state-of-the-art headquarters facility for the Laurel Police Department [on Fifth Street]."

Whenever the tall, soft-spoken McCullagh came before the City Council, members knew he would be well prepared with the best numbers in hand. Council President Frederick Smalls said his retirement is a big loss to the city.

"He brought with him a level of professionalism we hadn't had before, and that's not to imply that those before him were not good, but he brought that additional experience and expertise," Smalls said.

In addition to heading military construction projects, McCullagh was an advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and George Bush when he was vice president. In 1985, he received the Defense Service Award from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for his civil engineering and managerial expertise. He's also the only Maryland public works director to receive the American Public Works Association's Public Works Leadership Fellow Award.

On the private-industry side, McCullagh held several executive positions with private companies, such as the UNISYS Corporation. Smalls said McCullagh's experience translated into savings for Laurel.

"Under his leadership on a string of improvement and other projects, he helped us save a lot of money," Smalls said.

McCullagh's motto was to always stay within the department's budget, and he formed partnerships with larger agencies on contracts whenever he could.

"Piggybacking on contracts with larger organizations allowed us to benefit from government discounts," he said. "D.C. has 1,000 police cars and can negotiate better prices than we could, so by riding their contract, we got the discount."

McCullagh is modest and always mentions his staff and the department's heavy emphasis on teamwork when talking about his successes as director. He pointed to the traditional lighting on Main Street as his most cherished project.

"Getting the grant money for those lights meant a lot to me, so every time I drive down Main at night, I get a warm feeling," he said. "Snow removal will happen regardless of who's here, but if we hadn't got the grants for the street lights, I'm not sure that would have gotten done."

Among the projects McCullagh wishes he had been able to accomplish is getting the county to repair a nearly 1-mile stretch of Old Sandy Spring Road and transferring it to the city, installing sidewalks on both sides of all streets and repairing a private section of Dorset Road. He leaves those for the next director.

Smalls said the city plans to take its time in filling the position with the right person.

In the meantime, McCullagh, who said he'll miss Laurel, has been making trips to New Jersey to check on repair work at his new home. He also took time to introduce himself to the mayor and public works commissioner there.

"I told them that I do not intend to work full time but if they need a part-time volunteer or someone to bounce things around with, I'm available," McCullagh said.

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