After 31 years guiding village treatment plant, he steps down from village post
As operator of the Village of Fredonia’s wastewater treatment plant, Gary Buntrock realized his was the kind of job people take for granted — until something goes wrong.
That “something” was often a flooded basement or a broken sewer line.
“One of the best parts of working in a small community like Fredonia was whenever there was a problem with the sewers, the people in the community were usually the ones to let me know,” Buntrock said.
Buntrock stepped down as the village’s treatment plant operator last week after 31 years on the job.
He grew up in Grafton and started working for the village’s Department of Public Works in 1974.
Buntrock left that village job three years later, but was rehired to fill the treatment plant operator’s position in 1983 — one month before the village’s new wastewater facility opened.
Buntrock has a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but began working for the village to stay in the area.
“When I graduated there were teaching jobs, but they were all up north and I wanted to stay nearby so my wife could keep her job,” he recalled.
It didn’t take long for Buntrock to embrace the job of running the treatment plant, a job he took very seriously.
“I guess I am the kind of guy, if we are getting hit by a lot of rain or if there is a chance the power could go out, I can’t sleep. Often I would decide to go to the plant even if I wasn’t on call, because I was always worried that call in the middle of the night would come,” he said.
“If you asked my wife Heidi, she would probably say I took the job a little too seriously.”
Buntrock said the worst challenge overseeing the treatment plant operations came after the area got soaked with torrential rains.
“The plant is rated for 1.2 million gallons of wastewater a day and we average about 600,000 gallons a day, but I remember a stretch when we were handling 1.8 million gallons following a bad storm … and we were able to keep up with the demand,” he said.
Buntrock said he remembers the Y2K scare, when he and his fellow plant operators were concerned that automated systems might shut down as 2000 dawned, but there was a collective sense of relief when toilets continued to flush properly after midnight.
“It was a dry New Year’s Eve that year,” he said.
Making sure the treatment plant met ever-tightening state regulations also added to the anxiety of the job.
Buntrock said keeping up with changing regulations and evolving technology came easier because of the support from the operators of the neighboring treatment plants.
“A lot of my time on the job was before the Internet. The best way to keep up with the changes going on in the industry was by talking with the operators from Port, Saukville, Grafton and Cedarburg,” he said.
Buntrock’s expertise and job longevity earned him recognition as regional Wastewater Operator of the Year in 2007.
“There’s probably a hundred guys who were more deserving of that honor,” he said.
Buntrock said people take modern waste systems for granted, but it can be a crisis when those system fails. That, he said, can be stressful.
“As my release, I coach basketball and volleyball for Special Olympics,” Buntrock said.
“You can have the worst day at work, then go to be with those special-needs kids and realize your problems don’t amount to anything. Being around all of those smiling faces kept me going.”
He got involved with Special Olympics because of his son Nick, but remained involved long after his 34-year-old son had outgrown the program.
Buntrock said he also found relaxation in the family cabin in the Northwoods, which was far enough away that it would be unreasonable for the village to expect him to respond if trouble arose at the treatment plant.
“Now that I am retired, maybe I will get to spend more than a couple days at a time up there,” he said.
The village has named Jason Nelsen its new treatment plant operator.
Image information: NEW TREATMENT PLANT operator Jason Nelsen (left) posed outside the plant with retired operator Gary Buntrock. Photo by Mark Jaeger