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Retired public works chief Kowalik still running

You might say Robert Kowalik literally ran from one job to another.

A longtime competitive runner, Kowalik retired Dec. 7 as Akron's public works superintendent. He now devotes his time to being assistant coach to the boys track-and-field team at Akron Central Schools, a post he has held for seven years. He also is a full-time lifeguard for the physical education and swim team programs.

Kowalik says his heart was never far from his high school days when he was a runner and a swimmer -- sports in which his two sons, Adam and Eric, would later participate. Kowalik went to the cross country state championships twice -- in 1970 and 1971 -- and was the undefeated sectional champion in the one- and two-mile races both years.

He credits longtime friend and classmate Jeff Wright of Akron, captain of the cross country team, with encouraging him to quit football for running. The two have since participated in many area runners' events, including the annual Turkey Trot in Buffalo.

A former lineman for New York State Electric & Gas Corp., Kowalik also worked in supervision and operations at the Somerset Power Plant before becoming public works superintendent 10 years ago, replacing Dan Huff, who retired.

"They were looking for someone with electrical qualifications [the village runs its own electric plant], and they knew I had retired from NYSEG," Kowalik said. The public works superintendent also oversees operations of the village sewer and water plants and is responsible for streets and parks.

"Three-quarters of the public works operations are nonroad-related," said Kowalik, whose workday began at about 6 a.m.

When he became assistant track-and-field coach (working 3:30 to 5 p.m. daily in the spring months), Kowalik said, "I hadn't really been doing sports since my high school years. So I set a goal of working my way up to doing a 5K race. And I got hooked on running again." He n runs about 28 races in the past year.

And he has a new goal -- training for a triathlon.

"My family thinks I'm crazy," said Kowalik, whose wife, Diane, is a teacher's aide for the school district.

Kowalik, who for the past three years has also been a lifeguard for the winter swim program, said he had been thinking of retiring from the public works job and "shifting gears."

When the full-time, eight-month position of lifeguard came up this fall "I thought if I'm going to retire, this is the opportunity," he added.

The village has appointed Jon Cummings, water distribution crew chief, as Kowalik's interim replacement.

Kowalik said there have been some major improvements, also stewarded by the Village Board, during his tenure, including ending storm-water infiltration problems at the sewage-treatment plant; updating water and sewer distribution maps using new technology; and partnering with the school district on road salt purchases and fuel for village vehicles.

"We're always caught between what we want to accomplish and what can be done with available funding," said Kowalik. "But I know the infrastructure of the village is in better shape than when I started, and I'm pleased with the professional people left behind."

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