There is plenty to take for granted in life – your health, food on the table, a roof over your head, even drinkable water and plumbing. Bill Szymanski didn’t.
In 1967, Szymanski was a civil engineer with Webster-Martin Inc. tasked with designing and supervising the installation of South Burlington’s sewer system. He was so dependable and knowledgeable, he was hired as the city engineer that same year. He was so diligent and affable, Szymanski was made city manager in 1972. He held both roles in South Burlington until his retirement in 1989.
On June 29, Szymanski died from complications of a stroke. He was 90 years old.
One man’s legacy
It’s quite a legacy for a man who came to the city in 1963 with his South Burlington-raised bride, walked into the Webster-Martin Inc. office and was hired on the spot.
“My Dad just walked in there, told them his credentials, and they said, ‘When can you start?’” Szymanski’s daughter Karen Dellert said in an interview Monday. Dellert and her husband, Craig, were in town with their kids making funeral arrangements. Armed with a box full of newspaper clippings and old photographs, Karen and Craig shared memories of her father. They were asked what they thought Szymanski was most proud of in his long life.
“Building the entire infrastructure for water and sewer supply in the city,” Craig said. “And he knew where everything was.”
Another noteworthy moment is when the city named a park after Szymanski. The property now known as Szymanski Park was originally referred to as thePotter/Knowland/Stonehedge property and was acquired as part of a land swap through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Part of the property was designed to remain as an open field play area for neighborhood children and families to utilize and remains so to this day. Basketball courts and the recreation path connection have been added since the original development.
Then-Recreation Director Bill O’Neill paid tribute to Szymanski in his 1988-1989 director’s report:
“Bill was always very supportive of the Recreation Department, our committees and the many volunteers and paid workers that have been with us since 1972. He helped us to get the financial resources we needed, the staff necessary to do the job, and supported us at every opportunity.”
City Clerk Donna Kinville said Monday that when she first started working for the city, she worked for the water district, not directly for Szymanski. Nonetheless, when Christmastime rolled around, there were small gifts for her and her colleagues.
“Bill was the consummate gentleman,” Kinville recalled. “Even though he wasn’t my supervisor, he showed you how he appreciated people.”
Kinville ultimately nominated Szymanski for the Secretary of State’s Community Service Award in 2014 based on his over 30 years of being a cemetery sextant with the city. He won the award and Kinville, Assistant City Manager Tom Hubbard and planning and zoning director Paul Conner drove out to Szymanski’s house to give it to him.
“He was really touched by that,” Kinville said. “He believed in service.”
Hubbard was first hired by the city 40 years ago and worked under Szymanski for almost two decades before Szymanski retired in 1989.
“I remember Bill as a very kind individual, well-liked and respected by all,” Hubbard said in an email. “His work ethic was a great example to each of us, and he always kept a good sense of humor about him. Bill possessed a great deal of history and knowledge about the beginnings of South Burlington as we became a city and established our City Charter. He knew where every pipe was located, without needing to refer to a map! He will certainly be missed, but his legacy will remain with us always.”
“Frugal” is another word often used to describe Szymanski. At his core, Bill Szymanski was a problem-solver, an engineer who never wanted to throw anything away because he could fix it. Karen said her Dad would come home to the house at lunch time, “slam a hot dog, then take a half hour nap” before returning to work.
“Gentleman farmer” also described a very key part of Szymanski, likely the most rewarding aspect of his private life.
Set back from a busy road through the city that has only gotten busier over the last 50 years, Szymanski farmed 4 precious acres when he wasn’t guiding the city from town to city status.
“The first thing we got was a lamb,” Karen said. “And then it just went from there.”
Szymanski also had geese, ducks, pigs, Karen’s chestnut pony Candy and some chickens. But what he really loved were his cows. He always kept a herd of beef cows through the years, cycling them out for butchering and replacing them. But one enormous Holstein bull in particular, Oscar, was spared. Holding a framed black and white photo of the animal, Karen said Szymanski loved Oscar and had him for a decade.
“He was huge,” she said of the bull, “and Dad loved him so much, that cow died of old age.”
Szymanski also brought in his own hay every summer, and then went and offered to hay other people’s land who weren’t needing the roughage for animals.
“The barn was bigger than the house,” she said, “and he used every inch of that four acres. We always had a huge garden.”
Szymanski grew up on a farm in Pittsfield, Mass., and the agrarian life never left his heart.
“I think he loved being an engineer,” Karen said, “but he loved farm life. He loved both. Taking care of the farm, that was fun. That was his joy.”
So there was always a project, she said, whether it was pouring the concrete driveway by hand over a summer, or single-handedly replacing the barn’s cement foundation, or building an addition on the house.
“He was just a hard worker,” Craig said.
A U.S. Air Force aircraft electrician and a veteran of the Korean War, Szymanski requested to be buried at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Randolph. His daughter and her family were headed there next. Karen said she was asked to provide the inscription for her father’s head stone. It was direct, to the point and all-encompassing of the man:
“Hard working, dedicated, civil servant,” she said.