A Conversation with Darlene Lane, Administrative Assistant and Travel Coordinator with NCPP

Darlene Lane, NCPP, with Dennis Tang, NCPP

Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC

It is almost impossible to think of TSP2 Bridge Preservation without also thinking of Darlene Lane. She plays a key role in the organization by coordinating and managing all its activities, from the regional and national meetings to the monthly calls of the regional Partnerships and Working Groups. I had a conversation with Darlene about her career, work and personal interests.

Can you summarize your professional career? What was your work experience before joining NCPP – TSP2 Bridge Preservation? How did come to get involved with this organization?

Before joining NCPP – TSP2, most of my professional career was in the banking industry. I started out as a teller at Standard Federal, a Michigan-based bank in Troy. I then worked as a savings counselor, mortgage counselor, and loan counselor, before being promoted to branch manager. From there I moved up to Assistant Vice President. I have fond memories of working for this bank. The Troy office was located in a lovely place, right next to the Somerset mall, which is a very highend mall. Not to speak of the beautiful artwork that the President, Mr. Thomas Ricketts, placed in the offices for the enjoyment of both the employees and the customers. These were the good times of the mortgage industry before the 2009 crisis, when everything went to hell and back. Standard Federal was bought out by Bank of America leaving us with the new owners that were ruthless. They immediately took away all the benefits so that I was left without my business cell phone, mileage, and credit card. Even more important, they changed my pay structure in such a way that I would have to pay them out of my own pocket if I did not reach my goals. So, potentially I could have found myself in a situation where I would be paying Bank of America to work for them.  Without reservations, I decided to take my buy-out. Soon after that, people got fired by Bank of America left and right. So, I was really glad I took that decision.

Who was going to hire me next? That was a big worry.  I was in my 50s, without a job, and in need of insurance. With the support of a friend, who was a manager for Citizens Bank, I started working for this bank. After completing their training in Flint, the only available opening was in Lansing, which was quite a drive from my house. So, I started communing to work.

In Lansing I used to wait on elderly lady, whose name was Betty Molinere. Among the other things, I helped her open safety deposit boxes and instructed her on how to pay bills on line. She was the mom of Patte Hahn, my current supervisor at NCPP, but at that time I did not know that. One day I got a call from Patte, asking me to reach out to her after work. At first, I thought that something might have happened to her mom. After being reassured  that everything was fine, I learnt that she actually wanted to know if I could be interested in taking a new position with the NCPP. She was impressed by my customer service skills, based on her mother’s words of appreciation. I recall that she said something like: “Well, I have a new position that I’m trying to fill in. I don’t even know if you’re looking for a job. But my mom thinks you would be wonderful for it”. Needless to say, I was very interested in Patte’s proposal. I did phone interviews with four people from NCPP. Then I did another set of in-person interviews before getting the formal offer.

At first, I did basic tasks at NCPP, such answering the phone and filing. Then one day, the person who was responsible for the bridge program suddenly quit. She left a note and her office keys on my desk after hours. The next thing you know, Patte and the other managers are talking behind closed doors. What soon followed was Patte coming to me and asking if I wanted to take on the position for the bridge group. My first thought was that I did not know anything about bridges except they go over water, but I said to myself: “Give it a try. So, I took the position and started organizing meetings and travels for the Bridge Preservation group. I have been doing this work and enjoying it since then. The best part is the friendships I’ve made and the kinship with everybody. I do like helping people. It makes me feel good inside.

I started working for TSP2 Bridge Preservation 12 years ago. Without a doubt, these 12 years have been a source of great satisfaction for me, both professional and personal.

What are your current responsibilities with NCPP?

As I mentioned earlier, I take care of travel arrangements for the annual meetings of the four Regional Partnerships. This mainly includes hotel and flight reservations for all the participants, excluding industry representatives, such as manufacturers and consultants. Then I run the monthly calls for the Bridge Preservation Partnerships and all its 8 Working Groups. It sums up to about 10 calls per month.

I also handle the accounting related to travel expenses, such as reconciling hotel bills, making sure that we are not getting overcharged or there is not a name in the bill that does not belong to our lodging list.

How has TSP2 Bridge Preservation evolved over time?

The number of people we serve has changed significantly over time. At the first TSP2 Bridge Preservation meeting in 2010 there were 60 people attending. Today we consistently have between 200 and 250 people participating in the meetings.

The amount and quality of information we offer to engineers and bridge preservation practitioners has also increased dramatically. Our web site has become the go-to-place for technical information and researches in the field of bridge preservation. Also, we have a number of Working Groups that are creating new tools and setting up new initiatives to promote and support bridge preservation.

Our internal organization has also grown over time. Twelve years ago the bridge preservation program was run by two people: Ed Welch and Steve Varnadoe. Currently the program can count on two people fully dedicated to it, Nancy Huether and Todd Shields, plus a team of seven people, between employees and consultants, who work for NCPP and dedicate a considerable part of their time to bridge preservation. In addition to myself, this team of seven people includes, Kathy Chomas, in charge of accounting, Inger Johnson, who helps with travel arrangements, Patte Hahn, who is the administrative manager for NCPP, Dennis Tang, who is in charge of IT and web site updates, Zach Trost, who does all our videography, and Bouzid Choubane, who is the director of NCPP since 2021.

There are three more people that complete the NCPP team: Rex Eberly, who does certification training for the Pavement Preservation, John O’Doherty, who is involved with research programs, and Dennis Halchoff, who lives in Arizona and works with equipment engineers throughout all the DOT states. [Ed Note: NCPP has a third branch in addition to Pavement Preservation and Bridge Preservation that is dedicated to Equipment Management. An equipment manager can be defined as anyone having a fleet to remove snow, cut the grass and do road work.]

NCPP also manages the Road Profile Users’ Group, which is called RPUG. This is a non-profit organization that serves as forum for the exchange of information between interested parties in road profiles.  Another branch of Pavement Preservation is the Emulsion Task Force called ETF, for which I also organize meetings and travels.

Do you also organize the Pavement Preservation meetings?

Patte organizes these meetings while I handle travels, flights and hotel rooms for them. I am in charge of travel arrangements for the three the branches of NCPP, not only for Bridge Preservation. I make reservations for 400 to 500 flights per year.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

First and foremost, I enjoy the people I work with. I am surrounded by such a nice group of people that are always thanking me for my work, even though I feel as if I don’t do anything special.

I do love my job. And I also love to travel for my job. If it had not been for the traveling, it would have been difficult for me after COVID. Since 2021, when my husband passed away, I have been alone at home in the Michigan countryside. It is not really easy to be at home 24 hours a day by yourself.

I must say that my husband’s passing away was very hard on me. He died at a most unfortunate time during our daughter’s wedding reception, when he aspirated on food and choked. Even thought there was a medical doctor present, nothing could have been done to save his life. He was only in his 60s.

The health of my husband Tim has marked the last 13 years of my life. He had COVID twice during the pandemic when he was hospitalized for 102 days as a total. Before COVID, in 2009, he suffered a stroke. I found him at home in our pole barn laying on the ground with my neighbor’s dog next to him. I had no idea how long he had lain there. He survived the stroke, but had to learn to walk and talk again.

Soon after the stroke, my mom moved in with us so as to take care of my husband when I was working. I had to work because I needed medical insurance. Tragically, one night, when she went out for a coffee with her sister, her car was hit. She passed away 10 days later leaving 54 grandchildren and great grandchildren. She was the matriarch of our family.

After the passing away of my mother, there was no other solution for me but to place my husband in a nursing home. I could not leave him alone at home because he could have taken a fall or easily hurt himself. This was 2015. For the next 6 years, every night after work, I would go to the nursing home and spend a couple hours with him. It was hard for me both mentally and physically. My husband was a very large man. So, just bathing and getting him dressed was hard work. The following morning I was tired, but nevertheless, I kept going to the office, doing my work with a smile and upbeat. Professional counseling helped me manage all that happened in that trying period of my life.

I do understand how your work at NCPP, the comradery and the traveling, helped you during those challenging times. I remember you telling me of a trip abroad to Paris that you enjoyed in particular.

Yes, that was an unforgettable trip. I was invited by Larry Galehouse along with all the NCPP team. In the end though, it was only me and Dennis Tang who were able to accept the invitation. I was accompanied by a girlfriend, who, strangely enough, shares the same birthday as Larry.

My working schedule in Paris was such that I had time for some sightseeing. I walked a lot, took the metro, went to the markets where I still recall the beautiful flower arrangements. What I liked most was sitting at a café’, drinking wine and eating cheese as if I were a regular.

Our hotel in Paris was very nice, with a room with a balcony and an elevator so small that only two people and one suitcase could fit in. One evening we went out to see a show of the Folies Bergere where we had front row seats. I have never seen anything similar in the USA.

So, definitively, that trip to Paris was a special treat for me.

Earlier I asked you what you enjoy most of your work. Now I would like to ask you the opposite question. What do not your like of your work? What is it challenging for you?

It can be challenging to relate to so many different people since everybody has different ways to treat others. My rule is to treat people the same way I want to be treated.

Since I began working from home, I miss the office environment, going out to lunch with my colleagues, having our birthdays at work, and stuff like that. I am a people person, who likes walking into the office and say hello, bounce off ideas or just chit chat. Don’t get me wrong though. I am still very productive at work.

When did you start working from home? Was it related to COVID?

Darlene working remotely from home.

It was March 13th of 2020 at the peak of the COVID pandemic. We haven’t gone back yet. I’m the only person that’s actually single in our office. So, I’m by myself all the time at home and there’s loneliness.

I go into the office sometimes when I have to get name tags ready and ship everything necessary for the meetings.  We have a lower volume of shipments recently due to the fact we went green and no longer print stuff such as agendas and attendee lists.

I live out in the country. There is a dairy farm across my road and another farm behind me. My internet service is horrible and without a lot of choices. Since Verizon changed the configuration of their tower, I can get only one bar at home. Sometimes I have to go out on my deck to be able to work. You can imagine that this is not a very feasible option in Michigan during the winter.

As usual, I would like to close my interview with a question about free time. So, what do you like to do in your free time?

I like to travel, as you already know.

I love the ocean. There is something about the salty air, the beach, the waves that soothes my heart.  

When Tim was alive, we liked to hunt. We did trap and skeet shooting and also target shooting.

I enjoy cutting the grass at my home that is on 12 acres. I obviously don’t cut all of it. I just cut for a couple hours. It is a very relaxing activity for me. I think it is about being out in nature. I do love nature. There is nothing like seeing a beautiful sunset or staring at stars at night.

I like drinking  wine. We have a lot of wineries in Michigan, especially up North.

I love going up north. This can be deceiving in Michigan where we call north both the upper peninsula and the upper part of the lower peninsula. I live in such a beautiful State. I‘ve lived in Michigan all my life like every one of my siblings and their families.

As I mentioned earlier, my mom had 54 grandchildren and great grandchildren. She was one of six and had 11 kids. I was the oldest of the 7 that survived. My dad was one of 13. So, I come from a really big Polish Catholic family that I enjoy.

Who was Polish, your father or your mother?

My father was 100% Polish. He came to the US from Warsaw. They actually had one of their 13 children on the boat on their way over here. My maiden name is polish, Kaczorowski. On the other hand, my mom had Irish, French and American Indian-heritage.



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