For a guy whose entire career has pretty much gone to waste, George Dreckmann was in a good mood this week.
After 26 years of putting the city’s spin on garbage and related issues, the consummate pitch-it man is retiring Jan. 19 at age 65.
It should surprise no one that Dreckmann first sneaked into the public eye in January 1975, when a Milwaukee newspaper discovered he was living and sleeping at the UW-Milwaukee library.
“The university is very capable of supporting life on a reasonable basis,” said the man who would later become recycling king of Madison.
The rest, as they say, is landfill.
It wasn’t until 1988 — after working in the Legislature as a budget analyst and aide, among other jobs — that he graduated from the UW-Madison in history and secondary education.
“I knew I had to get myself some other job (than in the Legislature),” he recalled Wednesday. “In those days, a college education was greatly valued by people in power. You needed a degree to launder yourself in to the bureaucracy for just about anything, and I didn’t have one.”
With that degree, he landed an uncushy job as a seasonal worker for the city of Madison in 1989.
“Whenever government wants to do something unpopular they hire someone to stand in front of the fan. That was me,” he said.
His job: go door to door and tell people why the city no longer planned to pick up their yard waste.
“I did something different from my counterparts,” he said. “I had my wife’s grandfather’s old red Ford F150 pickup truck, and I would tell people ‘I am going to take those two bags you have at the curb, but don’t do it anymore.’ That worked really well.”
Since then, Dreckmann has been the public face of recycling and the main point of contact for street issues in the city. In the background, he’s also one of the city’s top numbers guys, a job he relished because of his budget background: “Policy to numbers, numbers to policy.”
As the city began planning for curbside recycling, he injected himself into the discussion. He pestered. “Give me a truck, I’ll do it,” was Dreckmann’s motto.
His timing was perfect, he said, because “it coincided with a change in attitude. We were among the first agencies to talk about what we did. We didn’t call it ‘transparency’ back then. We had all this information we want to get out to the public. Now we have lots of agencies with public information officers.”
His title has changed. He can be called a “strategic initiatives coordinator” now. “After coming in second for the streets superintendent job two times in a row, this just was handed to me. It means ‘he does more stuff.’ ”
Over the past 26 years, the baseball fanatic Dreckmann has been the source of timely and wry quotes on all sorts of topics, from recycled basketball shoes (a worthy project to send old shoes to Nike) to worms in compost, to mattress recycling, to what to do with used cooking oil, to a favorite: “Hippie Christmas,” the student apartment move-out/move-in day, when trash containers are pillaged for usable treasures.
“Yeah, I am the Grinch who stole Hippie Christmas,” he said.
It is still a chaotic time, but the city now provides places for residents on the move to donate their cast-offs to local charities and actively discourages actual Dumpster diving.
“Most of the stuff that comes out of there is crap,” he said. “We set up the mechanism so people can donate Downtown. Gets the city cleaned up faster. When I started, you had to wear hard hats Downtown because people were shoving sofas out of second-story windows.”
Admittedly, “recycling is not a hard sell in Madison,” said Dreckmann, but there have been a few plans that, if not failures, were hard sells. Getting contractors to recycle 50 percent of demolished buildings, for example, did not go over well, but it started a serious discussion and resulted in a compromise.
A budding “organic waste” collection program is still unofficially known as “Dreckmann’s fecal project,” and mattress collection and recycling is a perennial problem. Another is complaints about snow on the streets in winter, which is why Dreckmann said this is the perfect time to retire.
“For someone who likes working with the public, I have grown weary of dealing with the public during snow and ice,” he said. “While there are a lot of pull factors for retirement, this is a push factor.”
Mayor Paul Soglin praised Dreckmann for all but one quality: “George has got decades of invaluable experience in leading the city in traditional and the most cutting-edge recycling programs. The only thing wrong with him is that he is a St. Louis Cardinals fan.”
Dreckmann lavished praise on his co-workers in the city and a “staff who make the job fun, because some of the stuff that goes out for public consumption is a lot less weird than what actually comes out of my mouth.”
He is known for direct action and straight talk, so when asked if there is still room in government for people like that, he said yes.
“I am sick and tired of hearing people say government is the problem. That’s nonsense,” he said. “We are how a society accomplishes its collective responsibilities. It is what we do at the local level. At the state level, you just talk things to death. Here, the garbage comes out in the morning and we pick it up by the afternoon. We can’t solve every problem, but we can ameliorate a lot of them.”
Dreckmann plans to continue passing judgment via a busy schedule as a referee of high school basketball and soccer. He also intends to worship loudly at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and the Duck Pond at Warner Park.
He probably will keep his everyman attitude. He worked in the media in Milwaukee back when that city had two big daily newspapers. He worked for both of them, as a janitor.
“The thing about being a janitor,” he said, “is you realize there are people who like people and who treat people well, and there are other people. I like people.”
The feelings have been mutual.