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2019

Edgard Alvarez 

Facilities Technician
Posted by Christina McHenry | Thursday, May 02, 2019 2:54:00 PM

Edgard Alvarez

After a few weeks sweeping buses at the old Northside Garage, Edgard Alvarez wasn’t sure he wanted to keep coming back. “I didn’t know I had to be a cleaner first,” he said. “I thought, ‘I went to school to be a mechanic, not to sweep buses.’” Alvarez stuck it out, though, ultimately making a 39-year career in bus and facilities maintenance.

Originally from Guatemala, Alvarez’s family moved to California and then to the Twin Cities. After graduating from South High School, Alvarez thought he’d become a Spanish teacher. But he found that he preferred working with his hands, picked up a few auto maintenance books and enrolled in vocational school. His first jobs were at Sears, JC Penny and Toro, where he worked on golf equipment. When a neighbor who worked as a bus operator suggested he apply for a job at Metro Transit, Alvarez took the advice. The first time he got a call back, he was out of town and missed his chance to get an interview. It would be another year before he got another call. This time, he answered, interviewed and got the job.

While sweeping buses wasn’t ideal work, Alvarez realized it would only be a matter of time before he could become a technician. And that’s what happened. After two years working as a cleaner, helper and skilled helper, Alvarez earned a technician role. He worked at nearly every garage, but spent more than 20 years at South where he performed inspections, did lift work and maintained air conditioning systems, among other duties. Alvarez said he liked working at South because it was just a few miles from his home and he could commute by bike. Alvarez also spent many years working the overnight shift so he could spend time with his three children, each avid hockey players. “I hardly ever missed their practices and probably saw 98% of their games,” Alvarez said.

When Alvarez learned about an upcoming opportunity in Facilities Maintenance, he set out on a new course. He began commuting by bus so he could use the time to study for a test he’d need to pass to earn a boiler’s license. He passed that test and, after 33 years in Bus Maintenance, got the job. Alvarez spent the remainder of his career in Facilities Maintenance. As a facilities technician, Alvarez, installed and repaired waiting shelters, came in early to clear snow, helped locate utilities and did a variety of other tasks. He liked the work, he said, because there was a lot of variety and he could spend most of his day outside. “When I’d go back into a garage to get something, I’d realize I had it pretty good because I was out and about doing things,” Alvarez said. “It was a really neat job.”

Alvarez retired in May 2019 with plans to spend more time with family, traveling, biking and playing hockey (after years of watching from the bleachers, he joined an adult league and began playing goalie). At the time of his retirement, Alvarez had been married to his wife Mirtha for 34 years, who he described as a very supportive partner. In 2019, Alvarez’s son was also working as a public facilities worker and his brother, Melvin, was working as a cleaner at South Garage.

2019

Mark Tobin-Cortez 

Mechanic Technician
Posted by Christina McHenry | Tuesday, April 16, 2019 4:35:00 PM

Mark Tobin cortez

Mark Tobin-Cortez thought he’d join the service. But after being diagnosed with flat feet, he had to rethink that plan. His father, a 23-year bus operator, encouraged him to apply at what was then known as the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Tobin-Cortez liked the idea but didn’t think he had the kind of experience he’d need to pursue a career in bus maintenance. After taking a class in which he helped rebuild a firetruck engine, he applied and got the job. Hired in 1976, Tobin-Cortez ultimately spent more than 43 years at Metro Transit. 

Tobin-Cortez’s first stop was at the old Northside Garage, where he worked overnight cleaning buses. “I was told I’d be working 9 to 5, which I thought was gravy,” Tobin-Cortez said. “Then I learned it would be 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.” After stints as a fueler and vault puller, Tobin-Cortez graduated to roles as a skilled helper and technician. At the old Snelling Garage, he steam cleaned engines, built mirrors, glued seat covers together in the upholstery shop, went on service calls and did a variety of other jobs. He also spent a few years as a miscellaneous bus operator, getting behind the wheel before or after putting his time in at the garage. That experience, he said, gave him a better appreciation for the issues operators reported to bus maintenance. “They’d tell us the bus just died and we couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Then it happened to me.”

Tobin-Cortez was among the first employees to work at the Overhaul Base when it opened, spending 12 years in the brake shop there. He was also among the first technicians to work at East Metro Garage, where he spent more than a decade inspecting buses. “I got tired of going on service calls and thinking we could prevent some of these issues if we just did a better job with inspections,” he said. Toward the end of his career, Tobin-Cortez moved from St. Paul, his hometown, to Brooklyn Center. To avoid a long commuter, he transferred to the Ruter Garage where he spent his last two years as a general technician.

Tobin-Cortez retired in April 2019. In retirement, he looked forward to having more time with his two dogs, fostering animals and creating marionettes and hand puppets, a longtime hobby.

2019

Ralph Mason 

Cleaner, Nicollet Garage
Posted by Christina McHenry | Monday, March 25, 2019 2:16:00 PM

Ralph Mason

Ralph Mason spent more than a decade cleaning passenger and freight trains that stopped in St. Paul. When he was unexpectedly let go, Mason quickly set out to find a new line of work and spotted a newspaper ad about vault puller openings at Metro Transit. Despite thinking he faced long odds, he applied and was hired. Mason never had to look for another job again, retiring in early 2019 with just over 30 years of service.

As a vault puller, Mason emptied cash- and coin-filled fareboxes as they came into the garage. A year after taking the job, a cleaner opening came up at Nicollet Garage and Mason seized the opportunity to try something new. The move would end up being his last – Mason spent more than 28 of his 30 years at Metro Transit as a cleaner at the south Minneapolis garage. From the start, Mason took pride in his work, carefully cleaning the seats, floors and other areas of buses so customers could feel comfortable riding. His attention to detail was matched by an equally keen sense of the individual needs of each bus. Mason was individually responsible for up to a third of the garage’s 150 buses at a time. “The buses almost became like a little family,” Mason said. “What I always said was that if you take care of your buses, your buses will take care of you.”

While the job may have seemed repetitive, Mason said he enjoyed his work routine. “People would ask, ‘Don’t you get tired of it?’” Mason said. “And honestly, I don’t. If you’re comfortable with something why not stay with it.” That doesn’t mean he was complacent, though. Born in St. Paul and raised in North Minneapolis, Mason said he was proud to be a public servant. He also credited his longevity to having good managers and co-workers who supported and looked out for one another. Mason especially admired Sy Sharp, Nicollet’s longtime bus maintenance manager who retired with more than 50 years of service. “All my life I’ve been into sports, which are all about teamwork,” Mason said. “And that’s what we had here – a strong team.”

Mason retired in March 2019 with plans to take some long-overdue vacations and to spend more time with family, including a son and two daughters. “I’ve really been tethered to this job but it’s all been worth it,” he said. “Whenever I get the chance, I tell new people this is a great place to be, and a great time to be here."

2019

Bob Benson 

Garage Coordinator
Posted by Christina McHenry | Monday, March 25, 2019 2:07:00 PM

Bob Benson

Born and raised on St. Paul’s East Side, Bob Benson joined the Navy, returned to his hometown and started a job proofing, baking and wrapping at Taystee Bread’s manufacturing plant. At the suggestion of a friend, he traded that job for one as a bus operator. While he wasn’t convinced he had the right personality for the job, Benson grew to love the work – so much so, in fact, that he built a 43-year career in transit.

Benson’s career began in 1976 at the old Snelling Garage, where he found himself driving some of the same routes he used to travel on growing up. Shy at first, Benson gradually started to open up to regular customers, a group of whom once invited him to a holiday party. “I was really awed by the whole aspect,” Benson said of his early days as an operator. “It really helped me learn how to talk to people and get away from my shyness.”

After five years at old Snelling, Benson was drawn to Bloomington’s South Garage, where he could get better hours. The move put him in unfamiliar territory, but it didn’t take long for Benson to learn his way around. “Minneapolis wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be,” he said. While he got more comfortable on the road, Benson also enjoyed a growing sense of community at South Garage, where he spent 38 of his 43 working years. “It really became more of a family,” he said. In addition to friendships, it was at South that Benson met an operator who would later become his wife. (The relationship began when that operator, Lisa Benson, began rearranging the thumbtacks on Bob Benson’s carefully color-coordinated bulletin board.)  

As Benson’s confidence grew, so too did his ambition. In 1987, he became a relief instructor and began sharing some of the lessons he learned with newly hired operators. Benson also started filling in as garage coordinator, and in late 1994 took on that role full-time. As coordinator, Benson organized operator training, created standard protocols and served as a resource for operators, maintenance staff and service planners. He also made a point of passing the familial feeling he enjoyed onto new operators, learning their names and leaving his office door open so people could come to him with questions or to seek advice. “I always wanted to be the light in the dark hallway,” he said. “Once I could see that I could make improvements and help people, I knew this was the job for me.”

His responsibilities as coordinator grew over time, too. Benson was involved in large projects like the opening of the Marq2 corridor, the I-35W & 46th Street Station and Metro Transit’s first Bus Rapid Transit service, the A Line. He also experienced two World Series, two Super Bowls and 43 Minnesota State Fairs. Throughout it all, he continued to drive when other operators weren’t available. “It got to the point where there wasn’t enough time in the day to get everything done,” Benson said. “Being able to get involved in all these things was really gratifying.” When he retired, Benson had the longest tenure as coordinator among those holding the same position.

Benson retired on March 22, 2019 – exactly 43 years after his first day on the job. In retirement, he planned to devote more time to community service, volunteering with the Minnesota Zoo and as an election judge, traveling and golfing. He also looked forward to spending more time with family, including his three children and four grandchildren. “I came here thinking of this as a transitional job,” Benson said. “I think I missed my departure date by about 40 years.”

2019

Karin Warren 

Senior Accounting Specialist
Posted by Christina McHenry | Thursday, March 07, 2019 1:36:00 PM

Karin Warren

As a Minneapolis firefighter, Karin Warren’s father appreciated what it meant to work in public service. So when it came time for Warren to begin her own career, he encouraged her to think about finding a place for herself in local government. In 1984, she found it at the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which would later become Metro Transit.

When she applied, Warren had her choice of two jobs – one in Human Resources, and another in the Revenue Department. Attracted by a slightly higher wage, she chose the Revenue Department and began her career compiling ridership data which, at the time, was recorded manually. A year later, she moved to the Payroll Department where she helped assemble payroll information for bus operators. After that, she moved to the Convenience Fares Department, now called Sales Operations. She spent several years managing relationships with vendors who sold bus passes, a role she found particularly rewarding.

Warren returned to the Revenue Department to be a balancing clerk, ensuring that money collected from fareboxes matched reports of what was taken in. If the collection was off by more than $100, it was up to her to find out where it went. The work, she said, kept her fingers moving most of the day. “I was really bad at math in school, but that’s what calculators are for,” Warren said. “If I didn’t have a calculator I’d be hurting.” Toward the end of her career, Warren took on what would become her favorite job yet – making thousands of payments for fuel, parts and anything else that had to do with inventory.

As she approached her retirement, Warren said she was grateful to have followed her father’s advice. In addition to job stability, good benefits and a comfortable retirement, Warren developed strong bonds with her co-workers, many of whom spent decades working alongside her. “I always think to myself, ‘I’m so glad my dad pushed me to do this,’ because it’s really made me who I am,” Warren said. “I thank my lucky starts – it’s been a great journey.”

Warren retired in March 2019 with more than 34 years of service. In retirement, she looked forward to spending more time with her family and dogs, and to devote more attention to volunteering, fishing, gardening and cooking.

2019

Frank Hernandez 

Mechanic-Technician, East Metro
Posted by Christina McHenry | Tuesday, February 12, 2019 3:43:00 PM

Frank Hernandez

After completing his service with the U.S. Marine Corps, Frank Hernandez found himself back in, St. Paul, his hometown, driving a cab. When a friend suggested he apply at what was then known as the Metropolitan Transit Commission, he hoped he could continue driving. But he found a job in bus maintenance instead, beginning as a cleaner at the old Snelling Garage.

Not that he wasn’t prepared for that kind of work. While in the military, Hernandez repaired and maintained jeeps, large trucks and other heavy equipment. His abilities helped him quickly move into technician roles at Snelling, the Overhaul Base, South and East Metro, where he spent the final 18 years of his career. Over time, Hernandez became a confident and efficient technician, often finishing his assignments well before he was expected to do so. 

At East Metro, Hernandez focused on inspections – “finding problems for other people to fix,” as he described the role – and spent more than a decade as a bay service technician. As a bay service technician, Hernandez spent his mornings troubleshooting buses that wouldn’t start, replacing headlight or taillight bulbs and making other quick fixes as operators prepared to leave the garage each morning.

While his career was devoted to bus maintenance, Hernandez still found plenty of opportunities to get behind the wheel. At Metro Transit, he regularly signed up to drive before or after his shift, covering work that couldn’t be assigned to an operator. He also helped deliver new transit buses made in Minnesota, driving them across the country to their final destinations.

Hernandez retired in February 2019 with more than 45 years of service. After retiring from Metro Transit, Hernandez said he planned to continue driving buses between the Twin Cities and the Mystic Lake Casino.

2019

Terry Whitson, #304 

Operator-Heywood
Posted by Christina McHenry | Friday, January 11, 2019 2:07:00 PM

Terry Whitson

Terry Whitson thought he’d make a career as an industrial welder. But when the company he was working for moved out of state, he found himself looking for a new line of work. His then father-in-law was working as a bus operator and suggested he try driving for a living. “It was the last thing that I ever would have thought of,” Whitson said. Even so, he applied and started shortly thereafter as a part-time operator at what was then called the Shingle Creek Garage. Whitson would ultimately spend almost 34 years as a bus operator.

Whitson remembers being pretty nervous as he started out on his new path. But he liked the challenge, the variety and the clean uniforms. So he stuck with it. After a few years at Shingle Creek (now the Martin J. Ruter Garage), he became a full-time operator and moved to the old Snelling Garage, where he found himself in unfamiliar territory. “I didn’t know St. Paul at all so it was kind of a crazy time,” he said. Before long, though, he was back in the comfortable environs of Minneapolis. From his home in North Minneapolis, Whitson could take the bus, walk, bike or occasionally even hitchhike to work. Working at Heywood was more than convenient, though. At the garage, Whitson found himself surrounded by friends and family. “I was really surprised how many people worked here that I already knew,” he said.

As a longtime extraboard operator, Whitson experienced a lot of different routes. But for nearly a decade he drove Route 16 between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Whitson said he enjoyed the route because it was “straight ahead, not a lot of hills and few turns.” He also spent many years on Route 7.

Shortly before retiring, Whitson earned a five-year Master Operator award for his attendance, customer service and safe driving skills. He also retired with a 29-year safe driving record and as a top finisher in several Bus Roadeos. The accomplishments were all the more meaningful because they followed a several-year period in which Whitson admittedly took the job less seriously than he should have. With support from his managers, peers and family, he charted a new path. Over time, he became something of a role model himself, passing along advice and answering questions from newer operators.

In retirement, Whitson planned to spend more time fishing, skiing and boating on the Mississippi River. “I call it my great escape,” he said. “Out there, it’s just water, wildlife and blue skies.”

2019

Rick Rolfson 

Lead Stockkeeper
Posted by Christina McHenry | Wednesday, January 02, 2019 1:55:00 PM

Rick Rolfson

When American Hoist closed its St. Paul operation, Rick Rolfson found himself looking for a new job. This time, he thought, it should be one that didn’t come with the risk of being laid off. So he applied for a job at Metro Transit, a company he believed would offer the kind of stability he was looking for. A year later, he was asked to work in what was then known as the Storage Department. It was the start of a career that would eventually span nearly 32 years and bring him to nearly every Metro Transit work site.

When Rolfson began, he was asked to help the department transition from a loosely-organized, paper-based inventory system to a computer program (TxBase) that would make it easier to organize and track the thousands of parts Metro Transit needed to have on hand. “I didn’t really want to do it but the older guys didn’t want to either so I was kind of forced into it,” he said. Despite his initial hesitancy, Rolfson proved more than up to the task. He created a step-by-step guidebook and taught others how to use the system throughout his career. The initiative he showed early on would become one of the hallmarks of Rolfson’s career.

Rolfson was the first stockkeeper to work a second shift (at the Martin J. Ruter Garage) and he helped setup materials areas at several locations, including the newly-remodeled Nicollet Garage Radioshop and each of the light rail facilities. Toward the end of his career, he also led efforts to keep better track of more parts, assigning serial numbers that could be used to make effective warranty claims. “A lot of my job has been filling holes – figuring out the need and appeasing it,” Rolfson said.

Throughout his career, Rolfson was also looked at as a trusted and knowledgeable resource who saw a direct connection between his work and the company’s success. “Goal number one has always been to have vehicles there when people need them to be, no excuses,” he said. The dedication he showed came from enjoying the work, and from recognizing he’d found the peace of mind he’d been seeking when he applied. “I never lost the idea of how good a job this was,” he said. 

In retirement, Rolfson planned to work on his home, travel and spend more time fishing, hunting and riding his motorcycle.

2018

Joe Koran 

Licensed Maintenance Electrician, #5232
Posted by Christina McHenry | Thursday, September 06, 2018 1:26:00 PM

John Koran

Shortly after finishing vocational school, Joe Koran took a drafting job with the Metropolitan Transit Commission and was told he had at least six years’ worth of work in front of him. Six months later, Koran had accomplished everything on his to-do list. But he wasn’t interested in finding a new employer – especially if it meant he’d have to keep wearing a suit and tie. The solution: turn his interest in working on cars into a new career in Bus Maintenance. Koran would spend the next 40 years as a technician, dividing his time between bus and building maintenance. 

Koran’s first stop in Bus Maintenance was at the old Northside Garage, where he worked overnights as a cleaner. He spent time as a cleaner and fueler at the Nicollet, Ruter and old Snelling garages, and was among the first technicians to move to the new Overhaul Base. At the Overhaul Base, Koran worked in the body shop and rotated through several other assignments, becoming an increasingly well-rounded and skilled technician who could fix not just buses but all sorts of equipment. 

To keep himself interested, Koran kept an eye out for new opportunities. The desire to try new things led Koran to move into building maintenance, where he became involved in everything from creating custom office furniture to striping parking spaces. While in building maintenance, Koran earned his electrician’s license as Metro Transit’s first apprentice electrician. As an electrician, he updated lighting fixtures, rewired buildings and took on a host of other responsibilities that brought him to customer and support facilities across the region. He also made a point of anticipating repair needs and addressing them before being asked. “I’d be driving down the street, see a shelter with a broken light or conduit, and make sure to get it fixed,” he said. “You really had to be a self-starter – that’s the biggest part of this job.”

Throughout his career, Koran enjoyed spending time with and getting to know his co-workers, playing for several years on work-based softball teams and riding with members of the Motorcycle Touring Club (MTC). Looking back on his career, Koran said those experiences and the ability to move around stand out as the best parts of his time at Metro Transit. “I met a lot of people and was able to change jobs almost at will,” he said. “That really helped me avoid the ho-hum some people get after a while in a job.”

Koran retired in September 2018 with 40 years of service. In retirement, he planned to spend more time on carpentry projects, boating and fishing and biking. 

2018

Neal Camper 

Transit Control Center Supervisor
Posted by Christina McHenry | Thursday, August 30, 2018 3:40:00 PM

Neal Camper

Neal Camper’s father-in-law worked as a Twin City Lines operator. So when Camper found himself looking for work, he was encouraged to check the Sunday newspaper to see if the Metropolitan Transit Commission was hiring. As it happens, they were. He put on a suit and tie, interviewed and was hired. And so began a career in transit that would ultimately last more than 34 years.

Camper’s first stop was at the Martin J. Ruter Garage, where he was among the first part-time bus operators. Within months, he had the opportunity to go full time. Over his 13 years as an operator, Camper worked out of the South, Nicollet and old Snelling garages. Working the extraboard, he came to learn nearly every route in the system. “That was something I was really proud of because I could answer any question customers had,” he said. Camper was also proud of the unique role he played in Minneapolis’ annual Aquatennial festivities. For several years, he was hand-picked to transport the Aquatennial queen candidates in a specially-decorated bus.

As he gained experience, Camper also became a role model for newer operators. He served as a part-time instructor and was among Metro Transit’s first group of full-time instructors. Camper spent seven years in this role, working with his peers to introduce new operators to the position. He was also among a small group who could test new hires seeking Commercial Drivers Licenses.

In 2004, as Metro Transit was opening its first light rail line, Camper saw another opportunity to try something different. He was among the first to operate Blue Line trains, putting in 160 hours of testing, as he prepared to become a Rail Supervisor. After a year in the Rail Control Center, he moved to the Transit Control Center (TCC) where he would spend the final 14 years of his career.

As a TCC supervisor, Camper spent his days problem-solving, assisting bus operators who called in looking for help, dispatching police officers and doing whatever else was needed to keep service running smoothly. Camper liked that his days always brought new challenges and appreciated working alongside people who supported one another. “I was always blown away by the way people would teach me things,” he said. “I learned something new ever day.” One of his most memorable experience was the day the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. Working as a police dispatcher, Camper had to make sure all of Metro Transit’s police officers and buses were accounted for and help establish a command center where response efforts could be coordinated. “I’m sitting there doing my regular routine and then to get that call – it was an interesting day for sure,” Camper said.

Camper retired in September 2018 with plans to relocate to Tucson, Ariz., where he hoped to spend time volunteering. A father of two, Camper also looked forward to spending time with friend and family and traveling.


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