By Gary Lloyd
Lewis “Cooter” Simpson made just one request when he sat down to be interviewed about his retirement.
He asked to make a special note to praise his wife of 59 years, Betty, for her steadfast patience, for understanding the 24/7 nature of his job, for tolerating all the late-night phone calls he had to take.
Simpson got his start with the city of Trussville in 1957 with the fire department, spent time with the water department from 1958-1959 and was a Trussville Police Department patrolman and sergeant/assistant chief from 1959-1969. He then spent a number of years with a now-closed paper company before returning to the city in 1988 as the head of the streets and sanitation department. That’s the position he retired from Friday, replaced by Wayne Sullivan, the former director and county engineer of the Jefferson County Roads and Transportation department.
Simpson will still be around. The Trussville City Council last week approved of hiring Simpson as a city consultant, and will pay him $41 per hour but not to exceed $23,000 for one year. He knows the work, enjoys it. Simpson doesn’t plan to cast a line in Alabama lakes or hack a white ball around golf courses during his retirement, though he does plan to travel a bit with Betty. The work, finding pipes for drainage fixes, keeping grass on right-of-ways trimmed, filling potholes on neighborhood streets, managing a department and always answering that ringing phone, is what he knows. Frank Jones has helped him with the day-to-day operations the last few years.
Simpson said he has a strong work ethic, that it was a hard decision to retire at age 78 but an easy one to do a little consulting every now and then, so as not to stop working cold turkey.
He said the city has been “real good” to him and Betty. The city gave him an opportunity to work with the public, and Simpson likes to help people.
“People have just been good to us,” he said.
Trussville City Council President Brian Plant has worked with Simpson since 2000, when he was first elected to the council. He said Simpson has solved a ton of problems for the city and has answered thousands of phone calls.
“It doesn’t get said enough, but we sure do appreciate you,” Plant told Simpson at last week’s council meeting. “You’ll be greatly missed.”
Trussville Fire Chief Russell Ledbetter has known Simpson since he interviewed for his current job in December 1997. Simpson is still a part of the department, acting as a liaison to the city council and as Ledbetter’s “logistics” guy, his right hand man.
“He has been indispensable to this department,” Ledbetter said.
The straight-shooting Simpson helped the fire department secure a training center at the old Hewitt Elementary School on Cherokee Drive, a building now named in his honor. Ledbetter thought at the time the department may not need that facility, but Simpson kept pushing it.
“Probably one of the smartest things I did was listen to him,” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter said Simpson took to him when he was first hired, helping find needed parts for the fire trucks that others simply couldn’t find.
“He’s been very good to me,” Ledbetter said. “He’s taken care of me. I can actually say that with a straight face. He has actually taken care of me.”
Simpson is known for finding needed parts and materials quicker and cheaper than others. That comes with his experience.
“He knows everybody,” Ledbetter said.
If someone calls Simpson and asks for “Lewis,” he knows it’s a salesperson. Why? Everyone knows him as “Cooter,” a nickname bestowed on him by his Uncle Roscoe Simpson when he was 5 or 6. He still doesn’t know why or how the nickname came about.
Simpson, who has won Trussville’s Gatekeeper Award and the Alabama Firefighters Association’s Captain Drake Award, will spend much of his retirement at a home on Margaret-Saine Road in St. Clair County, where there is cattle and a big barn. He’ll still have his phone, just in case.
“I’ve just enjoyed working here,” he said. “Any time I can help somebody, I’m just as close as the telephone.”
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.