Dan Hust | Democrat
RUSSELL AHRENS HOLDS up awards he won over 35 years of service in Liberty. On the shelf are examples of his workmanship.
Russell Ahrens Defines Liberty
By Dan Hust
LIBERTY April 10, 2007 If Liberty can be defined by one man, Russ Ahrens may be the very guy.
His German great-grandparents settled just outside the village more than 150 years ago. His grandparents were born and raised there, as was his father, Russ Sr. (mom Elizabeth hailed from Livingston Manor.)
Russ Jr. himself grew up with sister Janice (now of White Sulphur Springs) in the very house his father built on Dwyer Avenue in the village.
His grandfather was a master carpenter, however, helping build Liberty’s most famous Silver Age resorts like the Wawonda, Young’s Gap and Lancashire Inn.
While a talented carpenter, Russ’ father made a name for himself establishing an air taxi service between the old Livingston Manor Airport and New York City in the 1930s, no less.
Russ Jr. also once flew around the area, taking off from the long-gone Grossinger’s Airport. The grassy strip hosted an air show through the years, as well.
Russ is full of such memories the train pulling into the O&W station, his 1968 senior prom at a thriving Grossinger’s, and a downtown central to everyone’s lives.
“The stores were busy,” he recalled. “Main Street even had parking meters.”
But Russ didn’t just live there. Thanks to him, Liberty’s thousands of residents and visitors could always depend on reliable, economical sewer service.
They may not have thought much about it, but Russ focused on it every day from 1971 onward, ensuring that the village’s sewer system functioned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Russ just retired in December as chief operator, a position he held for a whopping 35 years (earning him a certificate of achievement from the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials). He also had served as director of public works for the village for the last four years of his career.
His experiences working at a gas station, serving in the Army in Germany during the Vietnam War, trekking cross-country with friend Otto Bressler, and driving an LP gas truck for Palmer Transportation in Chester not only reminded him of why no place else was like Liberty, they served to prepare him for his role as laborer, mechanic, clerk, supply officer, groundskeeper and machinist as part of his duties at the sewage plant.
So on March 31, 1971, Russ accepted an offer from the village board to work at the circa-1930s plant off Willow Lane near Route 17 (identifiable by the old incinerator’s Liberty-signed smokestack). His starting salary: $2.97 an hour.
By the following year he was named chief operator and began taking what would become a lifetime of continuing education courses, eventually earning the highest, most demanding sewer system operating license New York State offers. (He also earned a water operator license.)
He took over operating duties from “a very nice fellow” named Stan Clark and soon found himself working with some of Liberty’s most beloved mayors, including Ida “Skippy” Frankel and Bob Sherwood.
He also hired outstanding employees like lab technician Charlie Tyler, who himself is coming up on 35 years at the plant.
In the mid-80s, he worked with the board to oversee construction of a brand new sewer plant, one that met stricter standards and odor controls.
Then again, he initially missed the old plant, which “smelled terrible.”
“Working at the plant was nice,” he chuckled. “Nobody bothered you down there!”
But Russ took great pride in running an efficient, proper system, and in 2002 the New York Rural Water Association recognized that fact by awarding him its Operator of the Year honor beating out dozens of other water/sewer operators across the state.
“They liked my recordkeeping,” he pointed out.
Indeed, Russ has kept everything from his first paycheck to 70-year-old newspaper articles about his family. His home is filled with memorabilia, along with a garage stacked with mementos of his favorite hobby woodworking.
It’s a hobby he has more time to focus on these days, although he’s still active with the Liberty Fire Department (he joined the Ontario Hose Company #3 in 1968), the Liberty Elks Club (since 1978) and the Covered Bridge Hunting Club in Claryville (for 25 years).
He’s also married with three children. Wife Kathy (the former Kathleen Trevorah of Yonkers) met him at Fiddle’s in Parksville in May 1973 while she was up with her family at a nearby cabin.
Despite the fact that Russ initially dropped the worn-out line, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” six months later the two were married.
Kathy said it was love at first sight, though she admits that “we are very different.”
“I think we both like our independence,” she remarked.
But don’t get the idea they avoid each other Kathy made sure Russ got a surprise retirement party in February, and Russ fondly recalled a loving poem he received at the party from Village Clerk Judy Zurawski and Village Deputy Clerk Alice Gonzales.
The Ahrens are also very fond of their children 32-year-old Russell who lives in Connecticut with his wife Kristen, 30-year-old Tracy who lives in Clearwater, Florida, and 23-year-old Kristen who lives on Long Island.
Both Russ and Kathy (who earned her LPN license at the same time as daughter Tracy) see them often but miss having them around.
Chalk that up to a public school system that prepared them to excel in their chosen fields.
“I always thought the schools were wonderful here,” said Kathy. “Liberty helped us raise our children.”
But Russ lamented that there’s not much for them to come back to these days.
“I think Liberty has to clean house,” he observed. “The garbage is terrible on these streets.”
He doesn’t see hardworking, community-minded people moving into Liberty anymore, although he remains optimistic about the village and township’s potential.
“We need something here in Liberty,” he remarked.
Perhaps, but it’s clear Liberty already has a great “something” in this 58-year-old lifetime resident.