Cal Hittle hauled his first garbage can when he was just 5 years old.
To make ends meet, Hittle’s father had to work a variety of jobs — wildcatter in the oil fields, ranch hand and logger, to name a few. Wherever there was work, that is where the family went. All told, they lived in seven different states, and the children attended 13 different schools.
Money was tight.
One day while the family was living at a trailer court at an oil camp in North Dakota, Cal and his younger brother, Ken, decided they wanted to help out.
Hoping to raise enough money to buy milk for their newborn sister, they grabbed a little red wagon and visited all of their neighbors, offering to take away their garbage for 5 cents a load.
“I’m not sure how important the money we raised really was, but we felt so proud that we could buy our sister milk,” Hittle said.
That sense of pride that comes from working hard and going the extra mile is something Hittle has carried with him into his career and beyond.
At the end of July, Hittle, 67, will retire from the Camas sanitation department after more than 30 years.
A smile and a wave
Hittle has become a very familiar face to many Camas residents.
Five days a week he arrives at work at 5:30 a.m., dressed in his jeans and dark blue button down shirt, brown suspenders and neon orange Camas Public Works baseball cap. He climbs into a garbage truck and hits the streets to complete his route, always with a kind smile that is framed by his bright white beard, and a wave or a friendly nod for all who cross his path.
“I feel like a kid who owns his own candy store,” he said. “It’s been a dream job that you would pencil out. I personally count my blessings every day. I’m having so doggone much fun.”
Hittle was hired by the City of Camas in February 1984, after working for 10 years at Clark County Disposal. His first position was as a sanitation worker, and his responsibilities steadily increased as the years passed.
In 1999, he was at the forefront of the city’s transition to automated garbage trucks. It was a big step up from the previous method that had workers hanging off the back of a rig, then picking up and dumping refuse into the truck’s hopper by hand.
“It’s become a lifesaver with this automation, but you still have to be careful,” he said.
Hittle has suffered his share of injuries. Broken bones, strains to the neck and back, as well as cuts and bruises have all been part of the job.
“It’s always been understood — the danger of the job,” Hittle said. “It’s not a matter of if you are going to get hurt, it’s just how bad and when.”
His first serious injury occurred when something unexpected flew out of one of the garbage cans.
“A big piece of a plate glass mirror came down and speared me in the arm, right to the bone,” he said. “It right away gets your attention. You think ‘OK, this is going to be a rough one.’ I wrapped a handkerchief around it and kept going until the end of the day.”
In addition to implementing automation, Hittle has overseen other changes to the trucks. Safety improvements have included the installation of lighting and video cameras, and strategically placing windows to make it easier for sanitation workers to see what is going on around them. There has also been the switch from diesel power to gas and from manual to automatic transmissions.
“Everything fell into a natural flow of innovating,” Hittle said. “It’s an evolving, always liquified industry that we are in.”
What has remained a constant, however, is the focus Hittle puts on his customers’ needs.
“The more we can stay oriented to customer service, the more valuable we are to that customer,” he said. “That is really what I think we are doing the best.”
That concept is illustrated as Hittle makes his way through his daily route. He knows many of his customers — and sometimes even their children and grandchildren — by name. He’ll sometimes stop for a quick chat.
He and the city’s other sanitation workers go out of their way to quickly fulfill special garbage pickup requests, for reasons that can range from holiday celebrations or a home remodel to cleaning out a garage.
“It comes to me by nature, but more than that it’s really the only thing we have to offer,” Hittle said. “Anybody can haul garbage, but to be able to interact with the people at that pleasurable level that we have established, and at that customer service level that we have established, it’s just important.”
‘The best boss’
The four-person Camas sanitation crew visits the homes and businesses of more than 7,000 customers every week. In 2013 alone, they logged thousands of miles in their garbage trucks and hauled 13.4 million pounds of garbage.
Garry Reed joined the Camas sanitation department in 1994, Kevin Kunkel followed in 1998. Both men say the department wouldn’t be what it is without Hittle.
“Cal has embraced the industry with such a passion, it’s hard to put into words.” Kunkel said. “Who he is and what he does rubs off on all of us. It’s why Camas has the best garbage service.”
Reed describes Hittle as an incredibly knowledgeable and caring person.
“He is truly the best boss I’ve worked with. He’s a heck of a guy,” he said. “He has our back. He’s there for us.”
“He’s just a good guy to be around,” added Kunkel. “He really cares about what he does, not just when he comes to work, but with everything in his life.”
Public Works Director Eric Levison, who has worked for the city for nearly 30 years, said Hittle sets a high bar when it comes to customer service, work ethic, leadership and knowledge of his trade.
“Over the last 30 years, Cal has been instrumental in the development and success of the sanitation department,” he said. “Cal was instrumental in the implementation to automated service, development of truck specifications to maximize productivity, route development, help with recycle pilot study, problem solving and establishing customer service as a priority of service.”
Hittle has become known for what Kunkel refers to as “Calisms.”
During the past few months leading up to Hittle’s retirement, Kunkle has been documenting some of his favorite quotes. Among the ones fit for print include “I’ll shut up and let you finish,” “Don’t let ’em work ya,” I’m put together about as well as a soup sandwich,” and “86’d.”
“I had to look that last one up on Google,” Kunkel said.
Hittle also makes a mean cup of very dark, very strong coffee.
“I like to call it ‘Cal’s Coffee,'” Kunkel said.
Hittle’s colloquialisms and his coffee won’t be part of daily life at the Camas sanitation department much longer. As his career comes to a close, Hittle said he will truly miss nearly every aspect of his job.
“The people that I work with on the street, from the little children to the elderly people, there is not an age bracket or gender bracket that I have not enjoyed completely,” he said. “Everybody is so darned nice to work for. It’s a very tough decision to hang it up, that’s for sure. To see that gate open for the last time, to take that last ride. I have no injuries. I’m not dying. Nothing like that at all. I saw that line in the sand, and that was it.”
Mayor Scott Higgins said Hittle’s retirement will leave a void.
“The city will miss Cal’s presence,” he said. “They don’t make them like Cal, anymore. Cal doesn’t use phrases like ‘that’s not my job.’ Cal just does what the citizen needs. It’s so refreshing to hear those comments back, and I will miss his influence in the city, as well as his presence in the community.”
Hittle and his wife, Millie, the parents of four adult children, grandparents of 12 and great-grandparents of two, don’t have any major plans after he retires. Hittle will “work down the honey-do list that has been building up,” and hopefully spend more time outdoors, enjoying some of his favorite hobbies — fly fishing and gold prospecting.
“Just simple things,” he said.