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The face of customer service

By Maggie Blackwell

For The Salisbury Post

“If customer service for the City of Salisbury has a face,” said Lynn Hillard, “it’s the face of James Vinson.”

Hillard, who is the city’s solid waste manager, and about 50 other city employees gathered recently to recognize the 33 years of service Vinson has put in before retiring later this month.

Folks couldn’t say enough nice things about the man.

“He’s always the same every day,” said Brian Moore, solid waste supervisor. “He comes in, does his job, smiles at everybody. If he has something to tell us, we know it’s time to listen — because he doesn’t complain unless it really needs attention.”

“After 33 years, he’s like an icon,” Hillard adds. “He’s just the Michael Jordan for us. You can retire the number, but you’ll never have another player like that one.”

The Dec. 20 reception for Vinson included Mayor Susan Kluttz and Safety Officer Richard Kelly. Kluttz presented Vinson with a commemorative City of Salisbury plate and made remarks.

“On behalf of the City of Salisbury, I just want to say one thing that makes my job so exciting is all the wonderful people like you who do such a great job that I’m always hearing compliments about, and I get to take the compliments,” Kluttz said. “It’s really exciting to be here with you today and honor such an outstanding man who has contributed so much to the city. Thirty-three years is a long time, and I know it’s hard for this department to let him leave.”

Kelly said Vinson has made his job easier, too.

After driving a garbage truck for 33 years, in excess of 300,000 miles, Vinson had no chargeable traffic incidents.

None.

In a 30-ton truck, with the amount of driving the men put in, it’s just statistically likely that on occasion they’ll bump or hit or back into something. Across the industry, folders bulge with accident reports — but not Vinson’s.

“He was getting ready to retire,” said Moore, “and I pulled his folder. All the other folders, they’re like an inch thick. James’ had just a few papers inside. It looked like a new employee’s folder. That’s when I realized something was different. So I checked, and — he’s had no accidents.”

Kelly presented Vinson with a plaque recognizing his safety record. On it is inscribed, “The City of Salisbury does hereby recognize and award James Vinson for his personal accomplishment and Division record of working accident-free over 300,000 miles and 33 years of faithful and loyal service.”

No sick days, either.

Vinson is retiring with more than 3,000 hours accumulated sick time — time for which he cannot be compensated. He is proud that he never once called in sick.

“Sure, I’d feel bad some days. But I’d just come on in and I’d start to feel better,” Vinson said with a smile.

That smile is legendary. During his reception, the comments always referred to his smile.

“When James smiles, he smiles all over,” Hillard said.

Vinson remembers that sixty men emptied garbage for the city when he started back in 1973, contrasting with the eight to nine of today.

“The garbage was in the alleyways, behind the houses,” he recalled, “and we picked up everything. The truck was just an old open dump truck and we dumped all the garbage in there.”

Commercial pickup has significantly changed over the years, partially thanks to the work of Vinson, Hillard said.

“Back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, we had three men working

eight hours a day, five days a week, picking up just the downtown and outlying businesses,” Hillard recalled. “With James’ help, telling us what businesses needed pickup two times, three times, and coordinating the routes as he worked them, we were able to set it up like we have today.

“Now, we have two employees, working three hours each on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and one employee working on two hours on Sunday, getting the things they put out on Saturday — so you can see how he helped us get from 120 man hours to 26 man hours per week. That was 10, 15 years ago — and that has saved the taxpayers mucho money.”

Working downtown in alleys in the wee hours was sometimes scary, Vinson noted. “But I just trusted the Lord and tried to be smart and it all turned out all right.”

Vinson is a wise man, a man who listens more than he speaks.

He observes much that happens around him. As he has learned life lessons, he has remembered exactly who gave him advice and when. His observations while working have caused him to reflect.

“Somebody buys a house, a house that looks pretty nice on the outside,” he begins. “Soon the trucks start coming in. They’re fixing up this or that on the inside. Making it their own house.

Well, after two or three years, they move out, somebody else moves in. Same house, still looks nice on the outside. Well, it ain’t too long more trucks start rolling in, fixing up this or that. It’s the same cycle, over and over again. You got to think, how much fixing does a house need?”

In looking back over his 33 years, Vinson is pragmatic.

“Well, I’m pretty happy. I stayed, I worked, and now I’m going to retire. It’s a good feeling. I’m going to do some work on my house, do some yard work, and I’m just going to enjoy myself. I might get my ‘B’ endorsement for my CDL and do a little more driving. My church has a bus, and we always need more drivers. I’ll help more at the church. I’ll do a little fishing, and work on some self-improvement — work on me. I enjoy mechanical work, using my hands.”

Vinson started work at sanitation when he was 18 years old, and stayed a short time. His brothers and sister worked at the mills. Vinson tried that, too, but he didn’t like being cooped up inside for eight hours. He worked for a while with his father, as a roofer. He came back to sanitation. You could reapply two years after leaving, and he begged the supervisor to take him back on. In 1973, one of the mills closed down.

“I thought, you don’t hear about someone getting laid off, picking up the garbage. So, I came back. God has blessed me in this job. With His help, I have made it through. There are lots of good people here, people who work here, and people out on the route. They have been good to me. I feel like I know everybody, and they know me. I knew I had to work, so, this is a living. I’ve been blessed by staying here. From time to time, I would think about quitting. A fellow named Cigar talked me into staying.

“At one time I had 20 years in, and Jim Hurley told me, ‘James get your other 10 in.’ So I did. With the help of the Lord, I have made it through. Someone said, ‘You don’t need brains to pick up the garbage — you just need a strong back.’ I could’ve taken that the wrong way, but I didn’t, and it’s been a good job.”

Will he still get up at 3 a.m. after he retires?

“Well, I don’t sleep that long anyways,” he said, “Maybe 5 or 6 o’clock, I’ll be up, doing something.”

***

Maggie Blackwell is a freelance writer who lives in Salisbury.

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