A Summer Job Leads To A Career
July 30, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
On a warm June morning in 1964, I tightened the Windsor knot in my tie, straightened my lapels, tucked in my shirt, and pushed open the solid walnut door of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. Mrs. Helwig primly looked up from her desk in the reception area, smiled broadly, and said, “Michael! I’m so glad Mr. Merwyn finally gave you a summer job.”
“Thanks for all your help, Mrs. Helwig. I’m really happy to have an opportunity to work in a city planning office,” I replied.
“You showed him you really wanted a summer job when you kept coming back. You’ll be working with Mr. Bill Smith. Follow me,” she said.
Mrs. Helwig led me into a large, brightly lit room lined with drafting tables. She introduced me to Bill, a short fellow with a crew cut, an OSU graduate student in City Planning. After we shook hands, I told him I had applied to OSU’s School of Planning and filled out forms for various grants, loans, and a fellowship. I did not mention that I had also applied to law school. Bill took me to one of the tilted tables, pulled out the padded stool, and said, “This is all yours.” I think he was going for irony, but it was lost on me. I was delighted.
“Our job is to map land use for the Blue Plan, a plan for growth of the Columbus region. Planners will use this to locate highways, schools, parks, and utilities to serve the Columbus region that is projected to increase 43% by 1985.”
I was distracted by his casual mention of 1985, a year more than two decades into the future and a year after George Orwell described a grim future. I was confident that we would avoid Big Brother. I was optimistic that we had plenty of time before that distant date.
Bill brought me back to the present by noisily unfurling a transparent plastic map. “This is a mylar section map of Grove City, just south of Columbus. This is U. S. Route 33, a gas station, a retail store, houses, an elementary school,” he continued, pointing as he spoke. The number on each lot represents a land use. Your job is to write these numbers on the map and to measure each lot. Can you do that?” He asked with a sadistic smirk.
“How can I tell what’s on each lot?” I asked evenly trying to not to reveal my rising panic.
He laughed. “We have these survey forms that our staff filled out from driving surveys. We also have aerial photos.” He handed me one of each.
Bill showed me how to measure the lots with a transparent card with sloping curves that showed the size of a rectangle at the corner of the lot. “These are parabolic curves,” he said. When he saw the blank look on my face, he added “Don’t worry about the geometry, just read the acreage on the edge,” he said pointing to the numbers.
I did some rectangles successfully and came to an undeveloped wood lot the shape of an amoeba. I looked at Bill and saw him grinning. He showed me a device with a pointer, one arm with a wheel and another with a dial. “It’s a planimeter. I have no idea how it works. Just follow the perimeter of your wood lot, lake or whatever, and read the answer. It works,” said Bill.
Soon I was coding blocks of properties and filling in the acreage on the survey forms. I became a member of the team planning the future of the Columbus area. I had advanced from janitorial work in a department store to a city planning job at a drafting table – and I made ten cents an hour more.
Other students drifted in later, introduced themselves, and set about their work at drafting tables. Their enthusiasm was not evident. I was enthused—at least for a few days. Soon, however, writing the code for each house in one subdivision after another made the tendons on the back of my hand sore. My mind wandered. I recalled coeds in Spring Quarter when coats disappeared, especially a particular blonde from New York in my Shakespeare class. I chided myself to refocus and to remember land use coding was certainly better than mopping the terrazzo floor at the store.
I sometimes lingered over the six-inch square aerial photos with a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass in hand. Viewing golf courses, swimming pools, football and baseball fields, and subdivisions under construction was more interesting than coding and measuring properties.
As I worked through the day’s stack of survey forms, I wondered how the planners down the hall would use the code of each property to create a plan for 1985. When a form was unclear, I asked Bill for guidance and added my bigger questions. Bill may have also been bored because he went on for a while in response to each question.
“Existing land use is basic data for projecting future demand for highways, utilities, shopping centers, parks, and everything else,” said Bill. “The data we’re recording is important to the planning process.”
On my route to and from the bathroom, there was a large room with four folding tables pushed together, surrounded by folding chairs. After I walked by this empty room for a week, I stepped in and peered at an extensive chart that began at the door and continued almost all the way around the room. A series of horizontal blue lines, hexagons were below months of each year on the chart. A familiar odor hit me: the smell of mimeographed announcements and tests distributed in high school. Some guys said you could get high by sniffing the fumes.
I hurried back to my table, but asked Bill about the chart at my first opportunity. “Come into the Board Room,” he said, “I’ll show you the PERT Chart and the Critical Path for the Blue Plan.”
Bill located June, 1964 above the tangle of lines and pointed to a heavy blue line that generally paralleled thinner lines marked “land use data” and “traffic counts” and connected the hexagons with mysterious initials.
“This thick line is the Critical Path that leads completion of the plan on time,” he said. It led to a large hexagon labeled “Plan Approval” at the end of the chart. He added, “Missing the targeted dates on the Critical Path will delay the entire planning process. Our Board of public officials and businessmen meets every month to review progress.”
I asked if the plan was on schedule, and he assured me it was, but he added wryly, “The PERT Chart gets updated every few months, and all these target dates all slide forward.” A smile spread across his face before he led me back to our workroom.
I was allowed to work extra hours on Saturdays. I wandered the halls and saw maps of the region on the walls of the planners’ offices. Some showed highways and arterials streets; others had green splotches showing parks and playgrounds. One office had a map titled Existing Land Use. I noted the blank sections of the maps—waiting for my data, I thought with satisfaction.
I asked Bill how our detailed maps would be used to make the Blue Plan for 1985. He spoke about how plans for roads, water lines, sewers, and zoning all have to be coordinated in an overall plan. He said one of his professors is working on a mathematical model to project alternative development patterns and identify the optimal plan for 1985, but he admitted, “Right now it’s more an art than a science.”
Most of the planners walked briskly through our workroom without pausing to say hello or even nod. Ted Shaughnessy, a big guy with a ruddy face, often stopped in our office with a mug of coffee to chat. He was liaison with elected officials, boards and agencies. Weather or sports were openers, but he often regaled us with stories about committee meetings or public hearings at city hall or the courthouse. He was greatly amused by their public pronouncements about serving the taxpayers while they pushed for concessions for developers and property owners.
One day he came in with a steaming cup of coffee, sat at an empty drawing table, and said, “We had a doozy of a hearing at the county zoning board today.” He paused until Bill and the interns swiveled on our stools. When he had our attention, he began with to laugh and shake his head.
“Unbelievable! Tommy Palumbo called John Cotton everything but a crook during a subdivision hearing this morning. I knew John’s the money behind Tommy’s campaign for county commissioner so I wondered what was going. Tommy goes on and on demanding an open green space within the big tract John’s platted for houses citing the planning guideline that I mentioned in my official comment on behalf of our planners. John’s lawyer argued that it’s wasn’t a legal requirement, and it would not be economically feasible. They went back and forth for the better part of an hour. Finally John stood up and said, ‘I’ve invested too much in this property already, Mr. Palumbo, but I’m prepared to donate a site near the pond if the county will make it a county park.’”
Ted couldn’t continue. He almost fell off his stool with laughter. When he recovered, he spread his arms with his palms up and said, “It’s a damn swamp,” and resumed laughing. “The county will drain it for him and make it a park. Tommy will brag about how he got a park for the voters when he runs for the commission, and John comes off as a good guy,” he added smiling and slowly shaking his head.
Bill had been listening quietly, said, “Actually sounds like a good outcome, Ted. The county gets a big subdivision with the open space in accordance with the planning policy guidelines.”
“Yeah, but let me tell you something.” He lowered his voice and said, “These politicians don’t really care about planning.” He shrugged his shoulders theatrically, and laughed. “They say they will back the Blue Plan because Sy Dilenschneider from the Citizen-Journal, John Galbraith, and other men from the Chamber of Commerce are big Blue Plan supporters.”
“Whatever works,” Bill replied.
Ted left and we turned back to our maps, surveys and aerial photos. An hour later, Bill stopped by my table, and I said, “Ted’s a good guy, but shouldn’t our planners be going to those hearings to explain the reasons for the planning guidelines?”
Bill shook his head slowly. “I’ve gone to some of those meetings with Ted. I don’t think our planners could communicate with the elected officials as well as Ted. It’s a different world.”
“How will the Blue Plan be enforced if planners can’t communicate?” I asked.
“City planning is a new profession. We’ve got to prove ourselves and build support. We can do a comprehensive plan for 1985 that make sense, but can we implement it? That’s the $64,000 question,” said Bill gravely.
“I hope the Blue Plan doesn’t sit on the shelf and gather dust,” I said.
“Someone has to work with the elected officials to make the Blue Plan happen on the ground,” replied Bill.
“I’ll bet Ted has a lot more fun than the planners down the hall. I think I would rather do what Ted does than sit at a drafting table drawing plans for 1985,” I said.
“Maybe city planners can do both,” Bill said with a grin.
“Sure. Why not? Make comprehensive plans and advocate for their implementation,” I said.
I continued working part-time at my drafting table in the fall. I could come and go as my course schedule permitted and logged about 30 hours per week. One afternoon, Mrs. Helwig came to me and said I had a call. I rarely received calls, and my first thought that someone in my family had been in an accident. I followed her to the only phone in our workroom. She pushed some buttons and handed me the receiver. It was Dr. Israel Stollman, Head of City Planning at OSU. He informed me that I had been awarded a fellowship for the two-year graduate program. I stammered my thanks and agreed to come to his office the next day.
Bill followed me into the conference room where I shared this news. He heartily congratulated me repeatedly. Even as he slapped me on the back, I remembered law school and my LSAT test scheduled two weeks later.
I left the office early and went to a small lounge on the fourth floor of the Student Union that was usually deserted where I retreated to study for midterms and finals. I stared out onto the campus and weighed my options. I was not sure I would be admitted to law school. I would have to borrow more money, and it was a three-year program. The fellowship paid for living expenses as well as tuition, books, and fees—and it was only two years before I could begin to make a good salary. I wrote the pros and cons in two columns on a tablet. After staring at the pages, I made a big check mark over the city planning column. I slept on it and this choice was even more compelling in the morning.
I signed paperwork that afternoon before I went to work. After telling Bill what I had decided, I went to Mrs. Helwig, shared my news with her, and was startled when she stood, walked around her desk and gave me a big hug. Only then, as my eyes watered, did I fully realize my good fortune.