Field Service Profile
Title: Field Construction Superintendant
With Neundorfer Since: 1996 (22 years in air pollution control industry)
Hometown: Kewaunee, Wisconsin (30 miles East of Green Bay)
Residence: Columbia Station, Ohio
Home Life: Married 12 1/2 years, two grown stepsons (32 and 27, both married)
Best Thing That Happened to Me: My family
Worst Thing That Happened to Me: Vietnam
Hobbies: Taking care of animals on the farm (2 dogs, 3 cats, 1 pigmy goat, 2 mini donkeys, 3 horses)
Dave in childhood
The best way to describe Dave Novotny--a big guy with an equally big voice--is a mixture between a hard-ass construction boss and Santa's farmer brother. He's tough but honest, determined but caring, rough but sensible.
That character was sown early during his childhood, took seed as a hippie teenager, grew into a sapling as a young Marine Sergeant who toured Vietnam, and has been branching out ever since through experiences in field service and construction supervision.
Dave grew up on an 80-acre farm in Northeast Wisconsin, the fifth of eight children in a Catholic family. His father worked at a heavy construction company that made Caterpillar parts and other equipment, earning a meager income. The family was supported on the outside income, plus sustenance from the farm (cows, chickens, pigs, a garden).
Despite being economically challenged, early childhood was a happy time for Dave. (See sidebar story about his older brothers pushing him down a snowy hill in a box.)
"Until we started school, as kids we were too happy to understand what we didn’t have, but cherished what we did have!" Dave remembers."I don't think I ever had new clothes until I got into the high school mode, except for socks and underwear. Everything else was hand-me-downs. My Ma sewed everything. It was always clean and always patched."
During his high school years, Dave became a bona fide hippie, complete with hair down past his shoulders to his elbows. He also got into some trouble by hanging out with the wrong crowd.
"All my brothers had high school records - football, track, basketball," Dave recalls. "My record was that I was first in my high school to graduate under the Huber Law. After high school, I went into the Marines."
Dave describes boot camp as being very much as it was portrayed in Tribes, a 1970 made-for-TV movie about a hippie who went into the Marines. He soon learned that the ticket out of grunt work, like picking up cigarette butts, was attending various school programs.
"For example, I went to school for a month and learned how to run a movie projector," Dave says. "We'd go out in the field on war games, put a sheet up against trees at night, and I'd run the movie projector."
Dave was 18 when he went into the Marines and got out at age 22 in 1976. He quickly climbed the ranks to Sergeant in large part because he could read. Since he served during later stages of the war, when the U.S. Embassy was being closed out in Saigon, Dave didn't go into the trenches like a lot of people. It was still scary enough, though. (See sidebar story about a close call involving Da Nang and Saigon.)
When Vietnam was over, Dave had about nine months left to serve. As a Sergeant, he could take R&R every two months to anywhere in the world the mail plane was going.
"I saw Seoul Korea, the Philippines a couple times, Guam, Japan," Dave recalls. "Every two months I'd get a week of play time somewhere. That was pretty cool."
When he made it back to the U.S. in June 1976, the Marines honorably discharged him.
"I probably would have stayed in, but it was very racial at the time," he recalls. "I was afraid of the black-white confrontations."
As a civilian, Dave worked for a while at a boatyard in Wisconsin building 1,000-foot ore carriers. In 1987 boat contracts were filled and layoffs were done. Being laid off from his job and ending a relationship, he took money from a large profit sharing check and spent a year traveling in a camper van. Then, he went to work on a subcontractor precipitator maintenance crew in Valley View, Ohio.
Once again, being able to read served Dave well and he soon was brought on board as a permanent employee and moved up the ranks into a supervisory role. He also met his wife, who was office manager at the company, and became a stepfather to two boys (15 and 10 at the time). The business he worked for closed its doors after about six years, in 1996. The owner recommended Dave to his friend Mike Neundorfer.
At Neundorfer, Dave started fairly low on the totem pole. George Neundorfer (Mike Neundorfer's uncle) was Dave's mentor and showed him how to use a computer for the first time. He was given a laptop and began exploring its capabilities. In the years since, he's gained a positive reputation for his to-the-point field service reports, complete with equipment maps created using a program called Canvas.
One Friday at around 11:00am, Dave was making cold calls and rang up a guy he knew, Bob, at Holnam Cement in Missouri. Bob reported that the plant was coming back online after an outage, and everything was okay. Around 3:00pm that afternoon, Bob called back frantic, wanting to know if Dave could get there by the following morning. There had been a fire in the precipitator.
"They had a fire in all four boxes of the precipitator for the world's biggest cement kiln," Dave recalls."They were coming online, discovered a crack, and shut the fire off to weld it up. But somebody didn't shut off the oil mister, which normally was used to keep the fire going. The oil traveled all the way back and coated the precipitator plates. When they turned the power on, poof!"
By the following Friday, Dave had a crew assembled at Holnam, and plates were on the way. It took 18 weeks to complete the repairs.
"That's how I got my wings with Neundorfer," Dave says.
In the years since, Dave has supervised numerous projects on-site at plants--mostly rebuilds, repairs and inspections of electrostatic precipitators. The biggest change he's seen? Modern technology--like state-of-the-art cranes--mixed with 50-year-old construction procedures that often persist out of necessity.
"These are old plants," Dave notes. "You've got these high-tech machines and cranes, but you can't get them in anywhere. So a lot of it is still chain-pull and manual labor. Fifty years ago they probably did the same thing. I don't see anything improving on that end of it."
Another change is the improvement in safety. Back in the day, Dave though nothing of hopping onto a crane ball, hanging onto the chain, and riding it to the top. Today, that type of activity is grounds for being thrown out of any plant in the U.S. Dave stresses that he took safety seriously, but practices were just different back then.
"I used to be a good steel walker," he recalls. "It didn't matter how high it was. Seventy feet in the air or 300; if the birds are flying below you, you're going to die if you fall. But I always had to be hooked off to something. I could walk that 4-inch beam no problem as long as I knew if I did fall, there was a chance. But if somebody unhooked me, I would freeze."
When he's not being the hard-ass construction superintendant, Dave returns to his role as Santa's farmer brother--caring for the small menagerie of livestock pets he and his wife have accumulated.
"I swore I'd never live on a farm again, but when I go home from work, I spend an hour or two in the barn," Dave says. "I just sit and relax, and brush the donkeys and horses. I don't really like riding. They're just big pets to me."
In Your Own Words...
"I was about four or five, and there was a winter blizzard at the farm where we lived in Wisconsin. My four older brothers put me in a box and shoved it down the big hill our house was on. (I am the baby boy, so I was always picked on.) In my memory, the hill was gigantic. I bounced against the barn. They all laughed and went into the barn to do their chores. They left me in the snow bank. I remember trying to get to the barn, and the snow being up to my face. It was probably only a two-foot snowdrift."
Closest Call in Vietnam
"I was a 19-year-old Marine Sergeant, a year into my four-year service. We were in Japan at Marine base Camp Fugi, around the time when Saigon fell. The XO told me to get my advance party ready--we were leaving in a half hour. We were going to get dropped off by helicopter on the beach in Saigon to do advance surveying for an artillery team. Our job was to go in and pick out targets so when the guns came they would know which way to point them. I was on a plane with four other guys, ready to go to Da Nang. One of the guys was 20, another was also 19, and the other two were 17. We sat in the plane for several hours waiting to take-off, and then were told we weren't going: Da Nang got over-run. If we'd left when we were supposed to, we would have been right in the middle of it.”