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Highway Superintendent Shawn Keeler and the Town of Putnam Valley

Mary Yamin-Garone - May 2024

  (Photo courtesy of Putnam Valley)
Seen here is a culvert washout caused by a storm on July 10, 2023, on Wicopee Road. The town of Putnam Valley highway department is hard at work dealing with trees. Crews perform drainage work in town. Crews perform drainage work in town. To keep his equipment fleet as up to date as possible, Shawn said, “What I try to do every year is to look at what my needs are. Basically, when I look at my numbers, it’s going to be under $50,000 for that piece. I put it into the budget for the next year.” Once the flooding receded, the damage caused by a storm on Wicopee Road could clearly be seen. Once the flooding receded, the damage caused by a storm on Wicopee Road could clearly be seen. The town of Putnam Valley highway department repairs a washed-out culvert in August 2023. The town of Putnam Valley highway department repairs a washed-out culvert in August 2023. The crew completes the repair of a washed-out culvert in 2023. A pipe washed out during a July 2023 storm. Crews fill in a pipe after it had washed out during a major rainstorm. The town of Putnam Valley highway department’s office and garage.

It doesn't take long to realize Shawn Keeler is the right man for the job. Comfortable in his own skin, he exudes confidence as he tells of his journey to become highway superintendent.

Born in 1976, Shawn grew up on Luigi Road, a private road the entire family used. In 1917, his ancestors came to this country and purchased 118 acres of land and gave each of their children an acre of land.

"I pretty much lived with my grandparents," Shawn said. "My parents rented from them until I was 17. After that, they built a house down the road on my mother's piece of property. Basically, l lived there until I was 34. Then, I bought my grandma's house, the one I grew up in. That's where I live now with my wife and four kids. I came from a big family with eight kids — six brothers and one sister.

"I'm number three," he said. "I have two older brothers and a set of twins. One of my brothers passed away in 2012.

In 1992, Shawn joined the firehouse and he's been there ever since.

"I'm starting my 33rd year. I was chief for five years back in 2011. I'm currently the vice president of the firehouse, a county fire battalion and many other organizations.

"I planned on being a radiologist technician," he added. "Tried the college thing for several semesters. Then, I went to work for my uncle's garbage company. When I wasn't in school, I made a lot of money. After that, I kind of jumped around. My uncle sold his business in 1998. I should have gone to the highway department, but I didn't. Instead, I jumped around between jobs. I worked at Walmart for a while, installed security systems and worked at a golf course for several months. I ended up at a job for a shipping company in Coldspring, N.Y., packing orders. I did that through March 2008. With a crumbling economy, the company had to downsize."

Unfortunately, Shawn was let go and became a stay-at-home dad for several months. Luckily, somebody left the highway.

"A gentleman named Earl Smith, who was my first boss in 2009, said there was an opening. I had my CDL, so I put in for it. I started as a laborer in August 2009 and worked my way up. I learned how to operate the bucket truck in 2015 and started running the tree removal division.

"We'd go out and find trees that needed to be cut down," he added. "If they were too big or close to power lines and houses, we'd use a company in town. Many times, they'd be on the edge of the road. Certain parts of the town and the roads are narrow.

"The right-of-ways are deep into the people's yards. Every now and then it gets too close to the house. There's a big liability there. These companies do it every day. We don't. We're tree trimming. We try to keep it going as long as possible once the snow starts falling. This division is kind of one of those things where you can push, keep pushing, you're off and you only have so much time to do blacktop that you can only do during certain times. Weed whacking and all that has to kind of come first. It's like my tree crew was ready to go out in July and then all of a sudden all hell broke loose. Rain fell over 48 hours in buckets."

Eventually, in April 2020, he became a driver. In the middle of 2015, he was elected as the local 456 shop steward.

"I took over the shop steward duties dealing with the union and the town. Grievances had to be filed. Contract negotiations had to be worked out and handled overtime. If we need guys for overtime, the shop steward goes through his list then calls who's next. Currently, I work well with the shop to make sure the lists are in the right order and everything stays on track."

In 2019, Shawn ran for highway superintendent against his old boss and lost.

"I figured that would happen," he said. "The way the story goes was when he won in 2017, I congratulated him and he said, ‘This is it. Two years and I'm done.'" Being a shop steward, I went to three or four guys and said, ‘He's retiring. One of us has to step up so we don't get an outsider. Then, he turned around and said, ‘There isn't anybody but you.'"

Shawn said never envisioned running for the superintendent's spot.

"I knew you needed some knowledge. You can't just walk into it. You have to pay attention to how things operate. It's totally different from the outside being a laborer, driver, operator, whatever, and then to actually sit in that seat. Big difference. Paying attention the way my bosses operated. The way the shop stewards operated before me. Even the way a foreman operates. You can never really plan for the everyday stuff.

"If I was the foreman and running the place when the boss wasn't there, it probably would have been an easier transition," he added. "Even though I wasn't in those positions, I paid attention. I gave my input many times. Once I got into the superintendent role on Jan. 1, 2022, my biggest thing was respect. You have to give respect to get respect. If you respect your men and women, they'll respect you back. You'll get more out of them. But be careful because they'll look at it and say, ‘it'll be a pushover.' So, you have to play the middle of the road."

Shawn also was the fire chief for five years. He admits that helped him be the kind of highway superintendent he is today.

"I ran a firehouse the same way I run the highway department. Obviously, it's a big difference. Fire department versus highway because we get paid quite a bit of money. You have to be able to draw the line."

Family First

Family is an important part of Shawn's life.

"My wife, Melissa, is a teacher's aide at the Putnam Elementary School. She's been there for 15 years and still trying to find time to finish her degree. I have a daughter, LeAnn, in college. My 16-year-old daughter, Isabella, is a junior in high school. She started working as a swim instructor at Fish Swimming School last year. Brendan is 11 and in sixth grade. He plays football and baseball. He's also dying to become a fireman. And last but not least is Connor, who's in fourth grade. Both boys can't wait to turn 16 and join the firehouse with me."

And Shawn is infatuated with Christmas.

"Decorating my house is a year-round process. I'm constantly thinking about and planning my display. The lights go up around Labor Day. It roughly takes two and a half months. I'm also active in school and town activities and I've played Santa Claus for the fire department and town events for nearly 25 years. In addition, my home was filmed for a television episode of ‘The Great Christmas Light Fight' that aired in December."

On the Job

The highway department consists of two storage barns or storage buildings. One was built as a launch building.

"Unfortunately, we didn't have water mains, so we had to put in another well. That system was put in to be a launch building. Unfortunately, it never worked. Basically, we'll store some smaller trucks like our mason truck. The other barn stores our extra tires and winter equipment we want to put away.

"Our main building has two offices. One is mine. The other is for my foreman and secretary. Next, we have a fairly small garage and two doors and another in the back. It's funny that we talk about that because that's some of the biggest things the town needs. The garage had to be updated. It's been pieced together since 1930. My office is the newest addition. since the late 1990s. It was set up to be two floors, but it's currently only one. We also share a salt shed with Putnam County."

Currently, Shawn is looking down the road to either create a bunk room or a place where the guys can go during those long snowstorms.

"Thank God we haven't had too many of them, but just to get some downtime right now would be good. If they're going to do that, they're going to sit in the shop where there's a table there for eating."

The town doesn't have $14 or $15 million dollars to build a whole new building. Shawn, however, can create some space where the crew can use as a lounge or break room.

"That would be great for them. It's one of my goals down the road. Whether it's a new garage, just being able to work with what we have or building an addition. Even with a rainstorm and you've been out since 5 p.m. the day before, you want to take a break."

As highway superintendent, Shawn is responsible for maintaining the town's 248 paved lane miles of road and 83 are gravel. That translates into nine plowing routes that take roughly two and a half hours to complete. He's also responsible for seven bridges and 15 culverts.

The town of Putnam Valley highway department runs on a total operating budget of $6,037,500 that includes salaries and benefits for employees; an annual CHIPS allocation of $310,816.58; PAVE NY, $72,271.18; Extreme Winter Recovery, $62,336.26; and $48,180.78 for Pave Our Potholes.

Shawn's crew of 24 full-time employees help him serve the town's 11,760 residents. They include:

  • General Foreman David Conklin;
  • Operators Tom Gambichler, J. Keith Haviland and Jospeh Fejes;
  • Head Mechanic Erik Mignano;
  • Drivers John Rohrs, John Griffin, Earl Peverini, John Finnerty, Jason Hatfield and Michael Lesson;
  • Driver/Mechanic helper Dave Anderson;
  • Mechanics Brian Bracken and Kevin Pugh; and
  • Laborers Thomas Faraone, Donald Yerks, Brian Scharff, Nicholas Mignano, Pasquale Crivelli, Anthony Cottone, Cody Sharp, Richard Hatfield, Nicholas Yerks and Austin Koskinen-Falls.

Another important team member is Margaret Bradley, who is the department's secretary and who Shawn calls "teh backbone of my department." Margaret has worked in the highway department for close to 30 years and overall for the town of Putnam Valley for close to 40 years. In fact, it was Margaret who nominated Shawn to be Profiled in the magazine.

When asked what he'd like to say to them, Shawn's response was a resounding, "Thank you. I'd like my crew and me to be remembered as hard-working guys who were always out there. We kept the town looking nice for the residents and made the residents proud to live here."

Keeping the Fleet Current

"What I try to do every year is to look at what my needs are," he said. "Basically, when I look at my numbers, it's going to be under $50,000 for that piece. I put it into the budget for the next year. It's funny because it's a new year and I'm going to sit down with my mechanics and figure things out."

Lightning Round

What's your least part of the job?

"Getting woken up in the middle of the night for whatever reason."

Most difficult?

"Making the guys realize I'm their boss and their friend. Some take advantage of that and mistake my kindness for weakness. That's a difficult thing. When they do something wrong, I have to come down on them. I always revert back to listening. I did it when I was chief for the firehouse. It's not an easy thing to do, but if you don't do it, it'll blow up in your face down the road."

Most important?

"Communication. Communication with the other elected officials. Communication with other surrounding towns. Communication with your guys. I need to communicate with my foreman. I need to communicate with my operators, my mechanic, laborers and drivers. If there's an issue where they feel I'm doing something wrong, they'll come to me just like me going to them. Then, there's communication with taxpayers. Somebody calls and has an issue. They should be heard and calls returned. That's part of communicating."

What surprised you the most?

"I'd have to say the public reaction for things. People will call complaining about the potholes in the road. Then, when you go to blacktop the road they're complaining about that."

Worst, most memorable experience?

"When one of my drivers took the truck that was three months old and sent it down a cliff on New Hill Road. Then, we had a storm where several homeowners were trapped on a bridge that floated down the brook. Just to be able to retrieve that bridge and get them back is a good thing."

Most challenging?

"Juggling the workload."

Most rewarding?

"Just the fact of knowing we can get out there and help people."

Proudest moment?

"When I got reelected and I won by a landslide. That's proof I'm doing something right."

Describe your job in one word.

"Tricky. You have to try keep your workforce happy and your taxpayers happy."

If you could change anything about the job, what would it be?

"The job is the job and you're basically going to make it what it is.

Is the job everything you expected?

"It gets a little overwhelming sometimes, but I'm used to that. I'm the guy who steps up when the chips are down and gets things done. I have good organizational skills and I'm always on top of things. I'm also cool, calm and collected. I think it helps you get to that level of just relaxing and getting it done."

Like most highway supers, when it's all said and done, Shawn wants to be remembered as "knowing that I did a good enough job to keep the town running for many years."

The Town of Putnam Valley

Putnam Valley is a town in Putnam County, N.Y. The population was 11,809 at the 2010 census. Its location is northeast of New York City, in the southwestern part of Putnam County. Putnam Valley calls itself the "Town of Lakes."

The retreating glaciers of the last ice age did much to shape the landscape of Putnam Valley, including the shearing of hills to expose springs (for example, creating Bryant Pond) and leaving the glacial deposits of stone and large boulders. The current area of Putnam Valley was occupied by paleo-Indians, followed by the historic Indians who lived by the many lakes. Dutch and English farmers moved into the area toward the end of the 17th Century.

In 1697, the Highland Patent was granted to Adolph Philipse. The first settlers arrived circa 1740. In 1745, the Smith property was sold to the Bryant family, who renamed their pond Bryant Pond and the nearby hill, Bryant Hill. The Smith family homestead is the oldest house in Putnam Valley, located just east of the Taconic Parkway on Bryant Pond Road.

Putnam Valley incorporated in 1839 as the town of Quincy, when it was separated from the town of Philipstown, and it took the name "Putnam Valley" in 1840, possibly because local inhabitants were not favorably impressed by John Quincy Adams.

In 1861, a small part of the town of Carmel was added to Putnam Valley.

Communities and locations in Putnam Valley include:

  • Adams Corners — a hamlet in the southeastern part of the town.
  • Amen Hill — a hill inside the Putnam Valley Park, known for its steep slope.
  • Appalachian Trail —the Appalachian Trail runs through the town of Putnam Valley.
  • Bullet Hole — a hamlet by the eastern town line.
  • California Hill State Forest
  • Christian Corners — a hamlet north of Oscawana Lake.
  • Clarence Fahnestock State Park — a state park partly in the northern part of the town.
  • Crofts Corners — a hamlet in the southern half of the town.
  • Dennytown Lake — historic lake in the hamlet of Dennytown.
  • Dennytown — a hamlet near the western town line.
  • Floradan Estates — a privately-owned cooperative community located just south of the town park.
  • Gilbert Corners — a hamlet west of Oscawana Lake.
  • Lake Peekskill — a hamlet near the southern town line that includes a small body of water called Lake Peekskill.
  • Oscawana Corners — a hamlet south of Oscawana Lake.
  • Oscawana Lake — a lake in the center of the town.
  • Putnam Valley Town Park — a town park primarily in the southern part of town.
  • Roaring Brook Lake — a hamlet around Roaring Brook Lake, east of the Taconic State Parkway.
  • Roaring Brook — a historic stream running through the town and across the Taconic State Parkway. Flows into Roaring Brook Lake.
  • Sunnybrook — a hamlet by the southwestern shore of Oscawanna Lake.
  • Three Arrows Cooperative Society — A cooperative colony near Shrub Oak.
  • Tompkins Corners — a hamlet in the eastern part of the town. The United Methodist Church there, now closed, is the only building in town listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(History courtesy of,_New_York) P