Gone, But Not Forgotten

A book and lobby exhibit lets employees and the public experience the history of the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in Denver.
Gone, But Not Forgotten
Visitors can listen to interviews with plant employees on telephone headsets and view their photos on the display panel below the touch screen.

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Creating a 353-page history book may not seem like everyone's cup of tea, but for Steve Frank, public information officer at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District (MWRD) in Denver, Colo., it was a necessity to get the information written down before plant staff began to retire in huge numbers.

Frank wrote the book, A 45-Year History, with help from many plant employees who wanted to make sure the district's history was not forgotten. "It's a lot like solving a mystery," says Frank. "I would find a photograph, scan it, attach it to an email, and send it to someone asking for identification. I would get a reply back in a day or so."

The book took five years to compile. Its completion was celebrated with a corresponding interactive exhibit in the district's administration building lobby. "The exhibit is ideal for people standing around the lobby," says Frank. "They can browse through and get a sense of who we are."

Historical inspiration

Published in 2009, the book takes a look at the district's history from inception in 1961 to recent changes as of 2006. MWRD serves about 1.7 million people in a 715-square-mile service area that includes the cities of Denver, Arvada, Brighton, Lakewood, Thornton and Westminster.

Frank wanted to capitalize on the knowledge of the plant staff members who had been with the district since the beginning. "For a lot of people who worked here over the years, the district was a living thing," he says. "One guy had been here 42 years. To him, it was like growing something in your backyard. You plant it, water it, nurture it, and watch it grow."

Jose Padilla, recently retired, was a major collaborator in the development of the book. "Information was leaving the plant and it wasn't being captured," he says. "The book was a great way to get all the information back from Day One from the employees that are still around."

Padilla started at the plant as a laborer in 1968, then moved up to plant operator, supervisor and finally employment and retirement plan administrator in Human Resources. Padilla grew up in Brighton, near Barr Lake. In those days, Denver had just one treatment plant, which discharged primary effluent into the lake.

"During the summer as a kid, the stench was so bad, we couldn't play outside near the lake," he says. "Only after I got into the field, did I understand why."

Padilla's story was an inspiration for the book. "Jose grew up to become part of an industry that has managed to change that lake into a regional jewel," says Frank. "Now it's an amenity, not an eyesore, or a nose sore. That, to me, is the kind of story that brings it home. He's grown up to change that lake into an amenity. It's a nice backstory."

Show and tell

The exhibit in the administration office lobby includes videos, photos and even equipment used when the plant was built.

"There are six or eight videos you can play just by walking over and using the touch screen," says Frank. "Telephone handsets are attached so people can watch the videos without disturbing everyone in the lobby. We've got a number of pieces from the beginning of the plant, like the shovels they used when they did the groundbreaking."

Frank and his assistant interviewed the first female plant operator, the third employee to start at the plant, and Padilla with 44 years with the district, to create an oral history. Visitors listen to the interviews and then can see the photos of the employees. "Below the screen, there is a display panel with the interviewees' photos," explains Frank. "We wanted people who were standing at the display after they watched the video to be able to, in essence, talk to our employees and find out a little bit about them."

Lost and found

A mockup of a sewer pipe in the exhibit shows "sewer treasures" that the sewer maintenance team has retrieved around town. "That's the very first thing people look at," says Frank. "Just from observing how they react, they're amazed to see fake teeth, coins, a high school class ring, all kinds of stuff, that has been rescued or retrieved from the sewers. These are things people can relate to."

Frank and other staff members start some plant tours in the lobby. "College groups tend to come in groups of twos and threes until they all get here," he explains. "I use the exhibit in the lobby not just as a holding tank, but as a way to engage and start the conversation while I'm waiting for the rest of them to get there. I want to make it worthwhile for the ones that are already there."

Making an impact on visitors of the exhibit and readers of the book was an unexpected result. "As we embark on new adventures and expansions at the plant, it's nice to have some sense of how we got to where we are," says Frank.


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