I don't know what it is about Al Schumacher. The guy would walk into a meeting with me, and I'd say something like, "Al, nice suit jacket. Does it come in your size?"
Sometimes he'd beat me to the punch with some jab about whatever I was being criticized for at the moment.
But nobody took more undeserved criticism or handled it with more grace than the Madison streets superintendent. It's the toughest management job in city government, save for the mayor's job itself.
City residents in every northern climate are quick to judge the snow cleanup efforts of their municipal government. (I once shared war stories about that with the mayor of Obihiro, Japan who told me, through an interpreter, "everyone complains.") Sometimes people have legitimate gripes, but more often they want you to defy the laws of physics and keep snow from being plowed into their driveways. Or they don't understand that we use less than half the salt of our municipal neighbors, because we don't want to turn our lakes into saltwater seas
Al took the hits and calmly explained why we do what we do. When we did screw up, he was quick to acknowledge it and to fix the problem.
And he was always looking for ways to plow snow -- and do everything else Streets does -- better. Last year his department came up with the idea of spraying a thin layer of brine on the streets just before the first few snowstorms hit in December. The notion was that the brine would keep the snow from adhering to the pavement and forming a hard ice pack after the storm. It worked well.
Al and his team were also instrumental in switching over to the new automated garbage and recycling programs, which are tremendously popular these days but were tremendously controversial when we implemented them.
Al spent 37 years with the Madison Streets division, starting as summer help when he was in college, and working his way up to the top job. In fact, I had so much confidence in Al that I made him Public Works Team Leader, a position that essentially oversees a good third or more of city government. He's taken the heat that comes with the job with humility and good humor, and he's taken what was already a good agency and made it better.
Al retires on December 23, so my guess is there's going to be at least one more good storm in him. If that happens, he and his crews will do their usual professional job, and then Al will wake up on Christmas morning a free man. But I bet he won't be able to stop checking the forecast for a while.
He didn't hear it enough when he was in the trenches, but he should know that he did a great job for the city and its residents.