Next to the “DENNIE PENDERGRASS” street sign on the file cabinet in its namesake’s office stands an assortment of models, knickknacks and odd memorabilia that provide a host of clues to the life of the chief of operations in the Columbia Public Works Department.
But in less than two weeks, Dennie Pendergrass will be retired, ending a 30-year career with the city department that manages the city’s business ranging from parking meters and recycling to streets, sewers and sidewalks. Pendergrass, 62, will leave his third-floor office in the Daniel Boone City Building and take his keepsakes with him. But his legacy will remain.
Since Pendergrass, who did an 11-year stint in the Army from 1965 to 1975, enlisted in city service as his first full-time civilian job, much has changed in the Public Works Department. In 1976, when Pendergrass was hired, there was no recycling program. There was no waste-water treatment wetlands. Problems with sanitary sewers occasionally caused fish kills. The landfill was a fraction of its current size. Many streets throughout the city lacked curbs and gutters.
While Pendergrass can’t claim sole responsibility for the city’s advancements, he certainly had a lot to do with implementing them.
“Even though I’m not the director, this is my department, this is my city government,” Pendergrass said. But, he added, “Thirty years is a long time to do anything. ... I’m ready to have a lifestyle change. Six months ago, I wasn’t.”
Public Works Director John Glascock said Pendergrass’s influence has been significant. When Columbia was interviewing finalists for the city manager position last fall, Pendergrass was selected to take them on tours of the city.
“He was kind of like a leader of the city,” Glascock said. “It’s the intangible things that you are going to miss.”
When Pendergrass was hired by then Public Works Director Ray Beck he supervised 95 employees and had a budget of $2.8 million. Today, he directs slightly more than 200 workers and has an annual budget of $29.5 million.
On Thursday, the department threw a party for Pendergrass at the Grissum Building on Lakeview Avenue.
The garage that usually is filled with a fleet of city vehicles in need of maintenance instead was filled with tables, chairs, a barbecue grill and about 200 employees and retirees who turned out to send him off. Pendergrass was the first in line for hot dogs, baked beans, brownies and bratwurst.
In an interview the day before, he said he was particularly proud of the work force.
“One of the big joys I’ve had here is watching ... people grow professionally and personally,” Pendergrass said, noting that some have moved all the way up from entry-level jobs to foremen.
One of those is street supervisor Bill McKee, who at 55 has been with the city for 37 years.
“I started out as a laborer; that’s so low they got rid of that entry-level position,” McKee said.
Over the years McKee was promoted several times.
“It was an opportunity to see people I don’t see on a daily basis. ... My wife and I were very humbled by the turnout,” Pendergrass said.
He will be replaced by Mary Ellen Lea, who will earn $75,752; the city announced her promotion on Monday. She’ll probably move into Pendergrass’s office the same day he leaves.
“I told her she can’t have it yet,” Pendergrass said.
While Oct. 12 will be Pendergrass’s last official day on the job, he suggested there’s a chance he’ll continue to have some informal involvement with the department and with city government.
“It’s kind of a hard thought to pick up and leave,” he said. “I still know the phone numbers. If I feel someone needs some cheering up or a kick in the rear... I’ll give it to them.”