Harford County Public Works Director Robert "Bob" Cooper recently announced his retirement, ending a career that spans more than 40 years supervising local public works projects in both public and private sectors.
Cooper, who turns 65 this month, said he will leave county service effective July 1 with the start of the new budget year.
"It's time," he said in a phone interview, explaining his wife retired from her job with the state government previously. "I'm looking forward to being retired with her," he added.
Cooper grew up in Fallston and says he was in the first class to enter Youth's Benefit Elementary when the school opened in 1953. He later graduated from Bel Air High School and from the University of Maryland College Park with a degree in mechanical engineering.
He has headed the public works department since 2005 and originally began working for the county straight out of college in 1971.
"A lot of people think I've been with the county forever, but it's really only 15 years – four different times," he said.
Cooper said he applied for a mechanical engineering job with Baltimore City right out of college, but later found there was a position also open at the old Harford County Metropolitan Commission, which ran the county's public water and sewer system prior to the switch to charter government. He worked for the commission and then followed his boss, Barry Belford, to the Cecil County Department of Public Works.
He was back in Harford County by 1976, persuaded to return by his friend, Jerry Wheeler, who was working the Harford DPW. He left again in 1980, this time to work in the private sector, mostly with the former T.C. Simons Company (now American Infrastructure), where he was a top executive.
One of the projects Cooper supervised with Simons was construction of the first cell at the county's landfill in Scarboro. "It was the first in the state where you were required to line it according to new standards" to protect the groundwater, Cooper recalled in saying he considers the job one of his career accomplishments.
Cooper returned to the county government in 1998 to serve as deputy DPW director under Wheeler, who had become the department's chief. He left in the early 2000s to become DPW director for the Town of Bel Air and then, when Wheeler left the county to go with Maryland Environmental Service in mid-2005, new Harford County Executive David Craig named Cooper his DPW chief.
Cooper, who is personable and is extremely adept at explaining complicated engineering jobs to the layman, would never be confused with a bureaucrat, so he engaged in some good natured repartee with members of the county council last month, as they reviewed next year's public works budget.
"This will be my last time coming to the council for a budget, and you don't know how much I am going to miss it," Cooper said deadpan.
He thanked all of his public works employees for everything they've done and said his job would be much more difficult without them.
"I do hope the citizens of Harford County realize what a dedicated staff we have here," he said.
Several council members, including Dick Slutzky and Chad Shrodes, thanked him for his service.
"It's been a pleasure over the years to work with somebody who can get the job done," Slutzky said.
"You always picked up my calls," Shrodes told Cooper.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti noted she still has "quite a few times" to work with Cooper on individual issues before he leaves.
"We've been together a long time and you've done an excellent job with the county," Councilman Jim McMahan said to the DPW director.
Council President Billy Boniface briefly brought up the controversy over the proposed Joppa waste transfer facility that the public works department is trying to implement as the replacement for the waste-to-energy incinerator that is due to stop running in 2016.
"Mr. Cooper won't have to worry about it," Boniface said.
Cooper later said he considers he work on the Abingdon Water Treatment Plant expansion and three-way water supply agreement involving the Army, the county and the City of Aberdeen to be two of his most significant achievements while working for the county.
At $77 million, the treatment plant expansion is the most expensive single public works project in the county's history.
The project is nearing completion and though Cooper said he has some regret he'll be gone before it's done next year, he said he's proud of having been in charge while the bulk of the construction took place and of the role he personally played in acquiring the land for the expansion.
He said the water supply agreement has ushered in a new spirit of cooperation involving the Army, the county and the city, one that will ensure both the city and Aberdeen Proving Ground will have a sufficient backup water supply.
He also noted that major reconstruction projects are under way on Wheel Road and Moores Mill Road, a way of explaining that the job of a DPW director is neither slow nor dull, nor ever finished for that matter.
Just this week, he joined County Executive David Craig, the contractor and residents of several nearby neighborhoods as the county opened a new highway and pedestrian bridge carrying North Avenue in Bel Air over Bynum Run.
During the ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday morning for the $2.6 million bridge, Cooper said the project was conceived years ago, before he became DPW chief, and the county was finally able to get it done during his last year in office.
Cooper likes to play golf and travel and said he'd still like to be involved as a consultant "on a project or two around the county."
He said he and his wife are in the process of selling their home in Forest Hill and will be relocating to Fenwick Island, Del. His staff and friends in county government will hold a reception for him on June 22.
"I've made my decision to retire, and I'm at peace with it," he added.