Traveling down his own road
Steamboat Springs — The Alabama drawl, the one that hasn’t left him despite 22 years in the Yampa Valley, is how most people know Paul Draper.
“You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy,” Routt County’s Road and Bridge Department director says in the same friendly, deliberate voice that soothes — or attempts to soothe — irate residents who telephone his office absolutely positive that a snowplow driver purposely deposited half of Howelsen Hill in their driveway right after they had shoveled.
Draper, who moved to Steamboat Springs as a typical college ski bum in 1980, has built a life and a career that began with washing dishes and selling shoes, and developed into working on the Steamboat Ski Patrol and coaching youth sports. Along the way, he turned a summer job with the county engineering department into a career that has lasted 17 years.
Fielding complaints and questions from the public is a large part of managing the department and the budget that maintains Routt County’s 942 miles of road. It is not the most difficult aspect of the position.
“Most of the time, people just don’t understand the big picture, the maintenance liabilities and how big of a job we’re trying to get accomplished in so little time because the summers are so short,” he says. “We can’t ‘just pave the road.'”
Improving and maintaining increasingly used county roads, replacing heavy equipment in a timely manner, and developing long-term road-maintenance plans all within the tight constraints of a budget is the job’s greater challenge.
Equally important to Draper is focusing on safe, functional road engineering — and trying to separate that from political issues like the impacts of roads on property values, growth and development.
“I’m not political, and that’s a source of tremendous frustration to people who want me to be more political,” Draper says.
“It isn’t a thankless job, but the rewards I get are from doing the job well. It isn’t exactly the kind of thing where people slap you on the back and say, ‘Hey, that road looks great.'”
And he has done the job well, say his coworkers. County Engineer Lou Gabos, who hired Draper as assistant county engineer in 1986, his first full-time employment with the county, credits Draper for developing a computerized pavement management plan to schedule chip-seal and paving projects, and the addition of safety features such as reflective delineators and mile markers on main county roads.
Most importantly, however, Gabos says Draper has built a staff that enjoys and takes pride in its work.
“He’s done a great job and brought the department a long way,” Gabos says. “He has developed a lot of professionalism and a high esprit de corps; the guys love coming to work.”
When Draper was promoted to road and bridge director in 1994, he unlisted the telephone numbers of the county road shops and gave his business cards to every employee.
It was an effort to channel public complaints to the correct person — him — and eliminate the amount of time road employees were spending dealing with questions that Draper could better answer.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy,” District II Road Foreman Lynn Blevins says.
“He takes a lot of the pressure off us so we can do our jobs. He’s really turned things around, he backs us up pretty good. Let’s go take care of the roads, that’s his attitude.”
Draper, a Birmingham, Ala. native, came into the road business courtesy of a pragmatic mother.
She felt her son should pick a college major that would translate easily into a career. The job market for his first choice, marine biology, was non-existent, but she noticed that there were plenty of engineering jobs available.
A year shy of completing his engineering degree at the University of Alabama, however, Draper decided it was time for a break. He left a summer job in Texas to visit a friend, Coleman Reynolds, in Fort Collins, and from there they decided to move to a ski town for the winter. They contemplated Telluride and Steamboat, and picked Steamboat because Reynolds had been to Steamboat once — and because Telluride looked too far away.
Draper remembers driving over Rabbit Ears Pass for the first time “like it was yesterday.”
It was Oct. 15, 1980, in a thunder-snow storm, and a bolt of lightening hit the ground just 30 feet from their car. Draper took it as a sign he’d found the right place.
Unfortunately, the local economy didn’t cooperate.
It was the last season with no snowmaking, and the snow was poor. Draper stayed, though, skiing during the day and taking jobs as a dishwasher or a cook at night. He even worked as a shoe salesman on Lincoln Avenue for a time.
After two years in the valley, at a time when summer tourism was still nearly nonexistent, he returned to Alabama to complete his degree — but he knew he’d return. In 1985, armed with a degree in civil engineering, he did just that.
“They were enlarging the airport in Hayden, and I got a summer job helping with the surveying out there,” Draper says.
“Back then, they used the road and bridge guys to do the whole project. I used to get guys out of jail to help with the surveying, and they were happy to do it for a little time outside and an extra sandwich.”
Draper worked seasonally for the department from 1986 to 1994. In the winter of ’86, with a few seasons of skiing under his belt, he got a winter job with the Steamboat Ski Patrol.
“When we did the (hiring clinic), the guy said I was the worst skier they had ever accepted,” Draper says with a laugh. “I think he meant that as a compliment.”
A few years later, his coworkers nominated a more experienced Draper as Steamboat’s representative for Colorado Ski Country USA’s ski patroller of the year contest. “I liked ski patrol because I like helping people,” Draper says. “I like the crisis environment. By the nature of ski patrol, to be good at it, you have to be able to function well in a crisis. But, it’s not a career job, and I got to the point in ski patrol where I either needed to go into management or move on.”
It was at that point, in November 1993, that Gabos offered Draper a full-time position.
Two months later, the director of the Road and Bridge Department resigned and Draper was promoted from assistant county engineer to director. Still, Draper didn’t sever his ski patrol ties entirely. He continued to work as a part-time patroller until 1998.
By then, the older of his two daughters, Bailey, now 16, was entering Steamboat Springs Middle School, and he gave up ski patrol to devote his extra time to coaching her basketball team. He stayed on through younger daughter Christie’s (now 14) middle school basketball career and just completed his fifth year of coaching.
“It was a fabulous experience,” he says. “It was just about teaching them the fundamentals and having fun. I’d drag the stereo out before practice and blast music to get them into the gym — disco, KC and the Sunshine Band, anything upbeat that doesn’t have bad words in it.
“My first year as the eighth-grade coach, in 2000, we went into the district tournament No. 3 and came out as winners. The trophy says ‘Craig, Craig, Craig, Craig, Steamboat, Craig, Craig.’ You have to go back to the 1970s to find the last time the Steamboat Middle School girls won the tournament.”
For his first several years as a paid coach, he turned his salary back to the middle school athletic department to buy jerseys and basketballs.
“I know the girls love him,” Steamboat Springs Athletics Director Bruce Wenzlau says.
“He always dresses up for the games — he’s one of those tie-and-coat-wearing coaches — and he’s very positive with the girls. I’ve never personally seen him lose his temper or say anything negative.”
Draper has recently added to his coaching duties. He married Vicki Vitek in 2001, and he now coaches 8-year-old stepson Braden’s T-ball team as well.The attitude he applies to coaching youth sports is the same one he applies to the Road and Bridge Department.
“If you aren’t having fun and enjoying what you do, you can’t do your best. I try to provide an environment where people are enjoying their jobs and give them the ability to take pride in their jobs,” Draper says. “I take pride in everything I do. The focus isn’t whether you win or lose, the focus is to be the best you can be. I’m the perennial coach. If I’m not enthusiastic about roads, who else is going to be?”
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