On a dry, sunny morning in early March, the first of its kind in days, the Tualatin River is running high and muddy along the edge of Jurgens Park, and Tom Steiger is precisely where he best loves to be: out and about in his kingdom.
Not a kingdom, exactly. And not even technically his park to maintain, but one of the many spaces that fall under his purview as Tualatin’s park maintenance manager.
Here’s a little secret: Jurgens Park – with its walking trails, balls fields, and access to the water – is Steiger’s favorite.
And Steiger, soft-spoken in his bright yellow, high visibility vest, is one of the city’s favorites. More precisely, he’s Tualatin’s 2021 Employee of the Year.
Steiger was nominated for the honor by multiple co-workers who wanted to applaud his leadership, specifically his command of clean-up operations in the aftermath of ice storms that clogged Tualatin with downed trees and natural debris last year.
“He always just takes leadership and does a great job with coordinating every aspect (of a project). He’s a great manager, patient and fair, and just a good teacher,” said Shelly Helgerson, who oversees operations at Jurgens Park. “It’s not like he’s a ‘boss’ boss. He’s one of us.”
She and Steiger started with the parks department a month apart in 2011, becoming fast friends as they learned the city and their jobs. Helgerson, who’s been at Jurgens Park since her first day in Tualatin, recalled Steiger’s all-for-one approach from their earliest meeting when he told her, “We’re both new here, so let’s be new together.”
On this bright morning, the pair was planting trees and removing invasive blackberry with a class from nearby Hazelbrook Middle School.
“What inspires me, and what I like best about working with kids is exposing them to tree planting, to this kind of work, and this kind of career,” Steiger said.
His love for horticulture, landscaping, and stewarding natural areas grew from high school vocational classes, where he studied everything from agronomy, the science of soil, to floriculture. “I can still make a corsage,” Steiger said.
The Parks Maintenance Division that he heads caretakes 300 acres of parks, greenways, natural areas, and landscaping around public buildings and throughout the city.
When snow and ice hammered Tualatin for several days in February 2021, knocking out power and scattering tree limbs and plant debris across parks and roadways, Steiger and his team sprang into action.
His leadership, coordination of multiple departments, and performance under pressure were nearly flawless, making one of the toughest challenges Helgerson has seen in a decade run smooth and steady, she said.
The multi-agency effort lasted weeks, testing the brawn of emergency response systems that had previously only been executed in simulations.
“That was a group effort of 25 on average for three or four straight weeks of not only the clean-up, (but) the communication with the public, the coordination with contractors and other divisions within the city,” Steiger said. “To get 25 people to all be on the same page, working in the same direction, (to see) the results of our clean-up effort, it gives you a really good feeling.”
It was one of the bigger challenges Steiger has faced since coming to Tualatin from Michigan 11-years ago.
He turned his sights West during an economic downturn that was crushing the Midwest. Then 50, with two of his three kids in college and the youngest finishing high school, it felt like a now-or-never kind of moment ripe for making big changes.
Within a few years of the move, the whole brood had followed Steiger and his wife to Oregon. The couple now has eight grandchildren living in the area.
His parks department work family is a small, tight group. Steiger, eight year-round employees, and a handful of seasonal workers care for all of Tualatin’s parks and green spaces.
But they’re not in it alone.
To keep all that space in shape, Steiger’s small team relies on multiply non-profits and hundreds of volunteers like middle schoolers planting and learning with him and Helgerson on this almost spring morning.
At the end of the session, before the kids head back to school, Steiger gives a quick lesson on the impact of their work, explaining the benefits of restoring this small stretch of land along the river.
Days like this are what Steiger loves best about coming to work.
“I would say that I think I have the best job in the city for the simple fact that the things that I get to do, in the normal course of a day, a week, a month, or a year, are really diverse,” he said. “I’m not tied to just a few tasks at a desk. I’m out and about. I get to work with the public.”