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Russell Whitaker likes to fix things.
He started at a young age, making minor repairs to his own bicycle and eventually turned his passion for fixing things into a career with the City of Bristol, Tennessee that has continued for the last four decades. He currently serves as Superintendent of Fleet Maintenance for the Department of Public Services, overseeing the maintenance of 400 city vehicles and a host of equipment needed to keep things running smoothly in departments across the city.
“We take care of everything the city has,” he explained. “We might be working on a weed eater one minute and a bulldozer the next.”
Much of what Russell knows came from experimenting with small motors. He became skilled at fixing lawnmowers, then began helping his father with repairs to the family truck while still a young teen. He also credits a TV/Radio Repair class he took at Tennessee High School with teaching him many of the basic concepts that are critical to work he does today.
His big break came in the summer of 1980, between his sophomore and junior years at THS.
Through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), Russell was given the opportunity for a summer job with the City of Bristol, Tennessee. The job itself was nothing glamorous - mostly mowing, trimming, and picking up yard waste by hand – but he learned the importance of being on time, working hard, and pitching in when a task needed to be completed. He returned to the City the following summer and, after graduation, came looking for a permanent position.
“At the time, a man named Gay Callahan was in charge,” Russell said. “I wasn’t doing anything and I needed a job, so I would stop by every morning at 7:30, stop by again at lunch, and then come again at quitting time to talk with him.”
Impressed by his perseverance, Mr. Callahan offered Russell a full-time job - IF he would continue to show up every day and be on time. That was 40 years ago.
Russell continued mowing and collecting brush for a time, then helped paint crosswalks and center lines on streets, and even worked in the City’s sign department before he was transferred into the City garage in 1989. By that time, he was a skilled mechanic and felt right at home.
Today Russell leads the City’s Fleet Maintenance Division and is responsible for a long list of reports and administrative functions. He schedules repairs, giving priority to ambulances, fire trucks, garbage trucks, and other vehicles that are critical to public safety and wellbeing. He still gets to turn a wrench himself from time to time, too, particularly when the garage is full or there is a challenging task that requires the entire team to put their heads together.
He has gained Automotive Service Excellence certification in a number of areas and Master certification in the areas of Automobile Technician and Medium-Heavy Truck Technician. He helps others in the department schedule training, too, to ensure they have the skills needed to work on the wide variety of projects that rotate through their garage.
Asked about his favorite project, Russell was quick to mention Steele Creek Express, the tiny train that is a popular attraction at Steele Creek Park. The train was completely refurbished in 2008, he said, adding that his primary task was to fabricate a new head light. One of the most challenging projects that ever came his way was a garbage truck with severed wiring. He and his team completely rewired the truck and made sure all the mechanical functions worked properly before it returned to service. Another favorite project was the wiring, installation and ongoing maintenance of the decorative downtown streetlights.
“There’s a satisfaction that comes from making things work the way they should,” he said.
When he’s not fixing things in the garage, Russell enjoys (no surprise here) attending car shows. He’s a fan of Chevy muscle cars, particularly those from the 1960s. He and his wife, Tammy, enjoy fishing, too, more for the solitude of quite time spent together than the thrill of catching anything. They also enjoy traveling aboard cruise ships, are active in their church, and look forward to time spent with their two children, two grandchildren and one adopted grandchild.
Shout out to Russell Whitaker, a skilled mechanic who turned his penchant for fixing things into a career that keeps everything from police cruisers to transit buses rolling along City streets. He’s another great example of Bristol at Work.