Changing of the guard: Holten ends 45 years in public service

Thursday, January 13, 2022
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Dennis Holten spent 45 years in public service to the city of Columbus. Photo courtesy of the Holten family

Dennis Holten stood among family, friends and well-wishes at the Atlas Bar last month with a smile that did not seem to leave his face.

His family had pulled off a surprise party that left the recently retired City of Columbus public works director almost speechless.

“I was shocked. I had no idea,” said the tall, soft-spoken Holten who for the last 45 years, was a public servant for the city.

Thirty of those years were as public works director — a highly important position as it deals with the city’s infrastructure. Water, sewer, roads, parks, cemetery, solid waste, buildings and zoning were Holten’s working life.

A Columbus native, Holten left home after high school graduation to play basketball for Miles City Community College. Having never liked school, Holten found himself back in Columbus and looking for work. He applied with the city and never looked back.

THE JOB

Although Holten had a crew of four, the early days often consisted of himself and wife Janelle responding to emergencies in the middle of the night.

“We didn’t have cell phones back then so sometimes I couldn’t get a hold of a crew to help out,” said Holten.

Holten is quick to point out it takes a team — including of all city departments and cooperation from the mayor and city council — to keep the city’s infrastructure functioning. The following are some of the projects and work of which he is most proud.

-Ongoing water main replacement projects that has so far involved between five and six miles of replacements. There have also been two new well water sources, the development of new mapping of water mains, hydrants, valves, service lines and other water assets. In the planning stage works for the last few years has been a $3.5 million water main replacement project.

-A new Aerated Wastewater Treatment Facility has been built with three lagoons and approximately 4,000 feet of new collections mains across the airport and golf course.

-Also under Holten’s watch was the development of an annual sewer cleaning program, numerous sewer main replacements and a new mapping system of sewer mains and man holes. In addition, more than 20,000 feet of lining of existing sewer mains have been installed.

Under the heading of recent projects is the upgrade of the existing Ultra Violet unit at the wastewater treatment facility and the replacement of sewer main lines under the railroad tracks, intersection improvements. Storm drainage is fairly high on the list.

“Columbus had never really had any type of storm drainage facilities. It was mostly just culverts and ditches,” said Holten. “Of course, we don’t have drainage pipe everywhere, but we have made a lot of progress in the last 25 years or so.”

Streets always seem to be a hot topic and Holten said the difficulty comes in having to make sure that any pipes that are under a given street are in good shape and that nothing is in need of repair.

“That is kind of where you run into problems with complaints as it is hard to explain that you just plan to ‘band-aid’ a street until you can obtain the funding to get water, sewer or storm drainage installed under it,” said Holten. “That is where things are in the west end of town (from A Street to C Street).”

Parks have also received a good deal of upgrading under Holten’s watch. New playground equipment has been installed in both Heritage and Sherwood Parks, along with underground sprinklers in those two as well as Main Street Park. Restrooms, tennis courts and a basketball court have been added to Heritage Park. And much work for the swimming pool as well.

In addition to his hands-on duties, Holten was also required to serve on the joint city-county planning board, which he did for 30 years. Work there involved developing zoning codes, working on amendments and being heavily involved in the Capital Improvement Plan development.

Holten also started the Mosquito control in the early 2000s that involved the city being part of a West Nile Virus study conducted by Montana State University. Holten would trap mosquitoes at Itch-Kep-Pe Park and a MSU student would collect them for study.

WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE

Holten’s 45 years of service meant he worked with six mayors (Curt Kuehn, Jack Kenyon, Bob Kem, Webb Mandeville, Gary Woltermann and Paul Edwards), two attorneys (Doug Howard and Ryan Addis) and three clerks (Olive Bergland, Ron Barndt and Kisha Miller) and too many council members to count.

“Mayor Bob Kem recommended my appointment as the Public Works Director,” said Holten, light-heartedly adding, “(I) wasn’t sure whether to thank him or not at the time.”

LATE NIGHT PHONE CALLS AND THE PEOPLE

Late night phone calls for water breaks, sewer backups, storm drain issues, trees in the street, toilets plugged at the park, politics, meetings, red tape and making sure he took his cell phone wherever he was camping are on the list of things Holten will not miss about the job.

What he will miss are the people with whom he worked — the public works crew in particular), helping citizens solve problems to figure out ways they could get projects done and working with the mayor, council and other department heads. Add to that list getting to see projects go from the idea stage all the way to completion.

FAMILY ROLE

Holten and his wife have been married for 40 of the 45 years he worked for the city.

“She has endured all the late night calls, the couple of Christmas’s and numerous other holidays and weekends that were interrupted due to city issues, the countless citizen complaints that we would hear at ball games or other events,” said Holten.

It was often Janelle who was by Holten’s side to handle those late night and weekend problems like sewer backups, street sanding, storm drain cleaning during major storms and cleaning park restrooms.

“I appreciated all her efforts and especially remember her greeting me at the door at 3 in the morning after a long night out and also the many times she would bring myself and the crew food and coffee during those winter water breaks,” said Holten.

The couple’s children — Dana, Kimberly and Philip — also would get recruited, helping clear storm drains and got good helping clear storm drains after a heavy rain.

“I really enjoyed having them along. They also had to deal with dad not always being home in the evening or missing a sporting event because of work or meetings,” said Holten.

It was Dana who planned the surprise party, even though Holten didn’t want to make a fuss about his retirement.

“He’s worked too hard all of these years to not recognize his efforts with a party,” said Dana Holten.

WHAT NOW

At age 65, Holten said he was ready to move on and has already started traveling a little and is anxiously awaiting golf weather.

“I want to thank everybody that I worked with and those who have helped me throughout those many years,” he said.