Greg Bassett: Drewer eyes October retirement

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In my job over these many years, I’ve met and interacted with a multitude of public officials. The overwhelming majority of these folks have always had the public’s interest at heart and their commitment has made the words “public service” especially meaningful.

Sometimes with these public servants, their deep commitment makes them difficult to deal with; their passion creates an environment where they truly resent anyone (especially newspaper reporters) who might question either their actions or ideas.

For much of the past 28 years, it’s been my job to question the plans and ideas of a public servant named Donnie Drewer.

A Crisfield native, Drewer has been in charge of every state transportation project on the Lower Shore since 1988. In his role as the State Highway Administration’s District Engineer, it has been Drewer’s job to oversee the envisioning, planning, design, construction and implementation of every state roads project.

He built big projects like the Route 50 Bypass north of Salisbury, the Malkus Bridge in Cambridge and the Nanticoke Memorial Bridge in Vienna, and smaller ones like the Fruitland Roundabout and the pedestrian tunnel at Salisbury University. Along the way, he and his employees have been responsible for the resurfacing of thousands of miles of highways, as well as the redesign and reconstruction of hundreds of intersections, turn lanes traffic signals and highway signs.

He’s also been the official people squawk about if snow plows leave even an inch of snow on a highway, even during blizzard conditions.

Drewer has worked for the SHA for a whopping 55 years (which happens to be my age), so he has been an engineer or inspector on every state highway project in my lifetime, including projects that completely changed our community, such as the Salisbury Parkway through the city, the Route 13 Bypass east of the city, the entirety of Route 50 from Salisbury to Berlin, the twin Route 90 bridges into Ocean City and Route 90 across Northern Worcester County.

Town bypasses have also been big items on Drewer’s resume: the Pocomoke City Bypass, the Princess Anne Bypass, the Vienna Bypass, and the Route 113 dualization that both expanded a highway and bypassed towns.

There is more work to be done: The state has to replace the Harry W. Kelley Bridge in Ocean City in the next 20 years or so; the Route 13 Bypass is 44 years old and many of its bridges and overpass decks need replacing. The eastbound Route 50 Bypass essentially ends at a huge traffic light; seems a fly-over will be needed there one day.

But Drewer, who could have officially retired 25 years ago, is turning 74 this month. He just recently announced his plans are to retire Oct. 1.

Recently, in an interview, I plaintively asked Drewer, “What are we going to do without you? There’s no one else I can ask to tell me stories, like about the building of Route 50 through the woods to Ocean City.”

His reply: “I’m not going to die. I’m just going to retire.”

Crisfield native

The immensity of his job responsibilities is something Drewer refuses to acknowledge. Ask him how he manages to balance so much while being a workplace leader and dealing with varied contract companies and workers, and Drew adopts the ultimate “aw shucks” persona.

“When you have good people who work for you,” he said, “it makes your job a whole lot easier.”

When he joined SHA some 55 years, he never imagined what was in store for his professional life.

“When I graduated high school, I needed a job. And at the time the State Highway Administration was hiring and I came on as an inspector.” Drewer worked as an inspector “for many, many years,  and I just sort of worked myself up the ladder.”

After joining the SHA out of high school, his first big project was the dualization in Princess Anne. That was the first of many limited-access highways, which were new then.

The massive Route 50 project from Salisbury to Berlin was next, in 1964.

“That was dualized completely on location,” Drewer said. “It was across the fields and through the trees and off to grandma’s house we went.”

After that, a new highway was built west of Salisbury, from the city to Cambridge.

Was it an intimidating responsibility, building those big highways across the Lower Shore?

“Thinking back on it, I just think about how much fun it was,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

When the Route 90 Bridge was built into 62nd Street in Ocean City, the culture of Northern Worcester County changed in a moment. That project allowed Ocean Pines to succeed and let tourists drive, without being slowed by traffic signals, from west of Berlin right into North Ocean City.

“That bridge, we started construction in, I believe it was April, and finished in November – in the same year. To me, that was just fascinating, how they built that in stages,” he said.

“They started driving piling on one side, then the next thing you know we’re pouring the deck on that same side while their driving piling half way across the river and then we follow suit all the way across.”

SU tunnel

Bridges and highways would seem to be the big achievements in the career of a highway engineer, but Drewer thinks most fondly of a project people in cars never see.

“Probably my favorite project… in my 28 years as District Engineer, is the tunnel at Bateman Street,” he said.

The 1994 project was much-discussed in its day – and controversial.

Salisbury University students, headed to the athletic fields, eateries, housing and to parking lots on the east campus across Route 13, used to cross busy Salisbury Boulevard.

The students didn’t always cross in the safest manner, and there were many safety concerns. The ultimate solution: a tunnel.

“I remember a lot of citizens saying college students should be smart enough to walk across the street and all kinds of stuff,” Drewer recalled. “But the issue was that we had walk signals there. You have a group of people (wanting to cross) come to the corner and push the ‘walk’ button and it takes several seconds for something to happen, and they wouldn’t wait; they’d walk across the street.”

While many people thought an overhead crossing was the solution, Drewer said the concern was students wouldn’t take the time to climb above the highway.

Drewer contacted other college campuses to see what they did for similar pedestrian challenges.

“When we built the tunnel, we looked at tunnels at universities all over the East Coast,” he said. “We took all of the positives and all of the negatives, and we made sure we didn’t incorporate any of the negatives. And I thought we hit a homerun.”

Remember how I said my job was to challenge Drewer’s ideas?

Writing editorials back then for The Daily Times, I took great joy in skewering the District Engineer’s tunnel proposal. It was easy because the public was equally cynical about the idea.

Like many editorialists who only think they know what they’re talking about, I had no vision for what Drewer & Co. wanted to do.

The Bateman Street Tunnel was indeed a homerun. It’s a thing of beauty used by hundreds of people every day. The SU lacrosse team, traversing from Maggs Gym to the stadium, employed it as part of their game lore.

I don’t know when I was ever so wrong about something. I hereby apologize to Donnie Drewer.

With that out of the way, was Drewer ever wrong about any projects, like I was wrong about the SU tunnel?

“Roundabouts,” he said. “For years, I was against roundabouts. I said, you’ll never build a roundabout in my district, not as long as I’m here.”

In 2007, after some fatal crashes at the four-way stop at Cedar Lane and North Division Street, a roundabout was offered as a solution. It too was controversial; people were opposed and complained. The decision was to try it anyway.

“Since we built that, I can’t think of any one time where I’ve had someone complain that it didn’t work,” Drewer said.

Retirement

The engineer said that in retirement he will “travel, play golf,” and then quickly adds – “but I do that now.”

“That’s the biggest problem I have with retiring – I’m scared,” he said.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Larry Hogan was in Salisbury to unveil the details on what will be Drewer’s final professional effort, a $20 million project to replace the decks on 11 bridges on the Route 13 Bypass.

While most of the project is serious engineering, a portion of the work will involve cosmetic repairs to crumbling cement in many bridges. The 40-plus-year-old walls, said Drewer, need to be “freshened up.”

“When the governor was here to make the announcement – I worked on all of those bridges – somebody told the governor that maybe he ought to put some money in to refresh me up a little bit.”

It’s impossible not to wish a man well in retirement. My hope, however, would be that Drewer allow himself to be freshened up for another 55 years of amazing public service.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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