Stephen ‘Curly’ Williams, second right, with Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson and former mayors Frank Cody, and Bob Francis, with the gold watch he received to mark his retirement from Masterton District Council after 45 years. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV
After 45 years of service to Masterton District Council, Stephen ‘Curly’ Williams is retiring. STEVE RENDLE talks to him about loyalty, roundabout etiquette and sticking to the job at hand.
You learn much more about Stephen “Curly” Williams from other people than you do talking to the man himself about his 45 years at Masterton District Council.
When it comes to the limelight, he would clearly rather be out of it – he claimed to have only been photographed three times in all his years at the council, before the Times-Age turned up with a camera.
But a ceremony before this week’s council meeting, to mark his retirement yesterday as urban roading engineer, revealed the impact he has made on those he worked with.
Early starts, long hours, and a preference for talking face-to-face shone through.
Former chief executive Wes Ten Hove said he had done some calculations, dividing the time Williams had put in with the hours in a normal working week.
“Based on that, you started working at the council before you were born . . . and half of that was spent in the gutters.”
Former mayor Frank Cody described him as “the model of a council officer – you had complete dedication to your job”.
“A lot of us feel it was a privilege to have an association with you,” he said.
Another former mayor, Bob Francis, recalled his own early starts when he would often come across Williams out and about already. Current mayor Lyn Patterson recalled his inability to fully switch off from his day job.
She remembered receiving a photograph of Williams’ wife, Sandra, in front of the community Christmas tree in Melbourne one year – not so much a holiday memory, but as an idea for the sort of tree that could be used in Masterton.
Williams conceded, while thanking his wife Sandra for all the support over the years – his voice breaking a little – that there had been times when she had suggested, “Why don’t you take your bed down there?”.
It all began in 1973, when the 22-year-old Williams began at the council as chainman [a surveyor’s assistant] and draftsman.
That came after four-and-a-half years at consulting structural and civil engineers Newton King and O’Dea. The appeal at the council was the mix of desk work and getting out into the field.
“I was keen for a change,” he says.
“I’d served my apprenticeship with the consultancy and it was a good opportunity.
“Really, I’m not a person to sit in an office. I was looking for a job that gave a bit of office and a bit of field work.”
He went on to complete his NZ Certificate in Engineering, but it took eight or nine years, studying at night after a day’s work.
A lot has changed in the town over the years, but some has ended up where it began.
“Obviously, the CBD went through a two-way, a one-way and back to a two-way,” he said. “And it may change again.
“I’ve gone full circle on the oxidation pounds, water supply, and the netball courts [at Colombo Rd].”
Development of the original netball courts, upgraded this year, was a real community project, Williams said.
“In those days, that land was the old stockyards, they used to have cattle on one side, sheep on the other.
“That was developed with the help of a lot of the local contractors who provided Euclid [trucks] and graders free to get the shape and then we got the PEP [government work scheme] workers involved.
“It gave them a chance to build up a few skills and gave them a bit do to.”
Traffic lights in the town were installed in 1973, and came out in 1995.
Williams is clear in his preference – he said at his farewell this week “if traffic lights are reinstated, I’ll invest in a panel-beating firm”.
“There will be times when traffic dictates lights, but generally roundabouts are the better option,” he says.
“Some drivers are not so good at using roundabouts but generally, they move the traffic without having to stop.”
And stopping is generally the problem, he says.
“Where the office is, you watch people [driving through roundabouts], and you hear the odd horn tooting.
“A lot of people come up to them and stop. There’s a car on the other side that is never going to get to them, but they stop.
“And once you stop, it’s a hard job [starting].”
Williams is known for his preference for getting out and talking to people.
“It might be old-fashioned but I’m not a lover of emails.
“I’d rather go and talk to people and discuss problems. It usually solves the problem quicker and you usually get a better definition of the problem too,”
That practice is the source of nickname.
Working with contractors in the early days, while the managers may have known his names, to the workers he become ‘Curly’ – and it’s stuck.
And over years, he hasn’t always been able to leave work behind, even when out of town on holiday.
“It’s probably a bit of a strange thing,” he says.
“You look at your own town and you know how that’s been put together, and if you have a day out in Wellington or you’re on holiday, unfortunately your eyes tend to be down on the paving bricks and the potholes – it sounds crazy but I’m not the only one.
“I’ve spoken to other people and you find yourself thinking, ‘How have they done that? That’s looks good, I’ll keep that in mind’.”
Ask him why he’s stayed in one job so long, not fashionable these days, and the answer is simple.
“I’m pretty loyal. Years ago, loyalty was something, wasn’t it?”
“You stayed a long time in jobs.”
And he wouldn’t do much differently.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve always been practical-minded – I like seeing things built.”
In retirement, Williams will be further honing his already formidable golf and tennis skills, as well as a doing a bit of travel.
“The biggest thing is going to be doing things in your own time.”