ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — When Willie Holsclaw started working for the Elizabethton Water Department, he didn’t really get a lot of respect. It was 1957 and the city did not have any backhoes in its fleet back then. All the water department needed was a man with a strong back to dig ditches in all kinds of weather, sometimes working in several feet of cold water on a freezing night.

“Pap Allen was my boss when I started. He hired me,” Holsclaw said. When Holsclaw started working, you could buy a new 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air off the new car lot for $2,338. If you liked Fords, you could buy a new 1957 Thunderbird for $3,408. Gas was only 24 cents a gallon.

That didn’t matter too much to Holsclaw. “Ditch diggers made 75 cents an hour,” Holsclaw said

But Holsclaw stuck with the job. Year after year, he continued to learn about the hundreds of miles of water lines in the Elizabethton system and where the cutoff valves were located. What was in his head was becoming more valuable than his strong back.

He didn’t stay a ditch digger. He was promoted to meter reader. In 1970, he was promoted to general foreman. He was no longer just a strong back. He kept learning more about the Elizabethton water system.

In 1978, Holsclaw was promoted to utilities maintenance supervisor. He kept learning more and more about the water system through the many more years he worked there.

Finally, after working for the water department for 40 years, rising from laborer to supervisor, Holsclaw retired in 1997. He had worked for the department for 40 years. He now had the respect of the department.

But he had something else. An encyclopedic knowledge of the Elizabethton Water System. Where the lines were, what kind of material they were made of.

The city had a problem with its aging water lines. Many miles of lines date from the 1920s and were leaking. It was estimated the city was losing as much as 60 percent of its drinking water to leaks. Plans were made to start replacing some of the old lines, at least the lines that most of the water department knew about.

After enjoying his retirement for 10 years, the water department came calling. It needed his encyclopedic knowledge of its system. “Teresa Nidiffer was the director then, and she asked me to come back part time and work on leak detection.”

Since then, Holsclaw continues to work for the water department as a water distribution specialist.

Johann Coetzee, water resources general manager for Elizabethton, said that when new lines were put in, they weren’t always accurately indicated on any map. He said one of the ways Holsclaw is contributing to the city is by participating in a program to place all his institutional knowledge of the water system onto a global positioning system.

Holsclaw usually works every Monday and Tuesday, dispensing the knowledge he knows better than anyone else on the planet. “I work with Terry Chambers. He is great,” Holsclaw said.

“Willie is generous and patient in sharing his knowledge of the water system and teaching our staff,” Coetzee said.

Coetzee said Holsclaw’s part-time day job is not the extent of his contributions. When there is a bad leak, Holsclaw goes to the scene and shows the crews where the closest cutoff valves are to the emergency. Coetzee said the closer the cutoff valve is to the leak, the fewer customers will be have their service interrupted.

Holsclaw often is called out in the early hours of the morning to come to the scene of a major break. “It is a part of my job,” Holsclaw said.

While Holsclaw continues to have an impact on Elizabethton Water Resources, he has also made an impact on another city department.

Many years ago, Holsclaw and his wife, Leota, moved to a house on West Riverside Drive. Leota said the house was in a nice location, just a block from the Watauga River, but the shoreline was overgrown.

The land belonged to the city, but it was neglected. City Manager Jerome Kitchens said records show that the riverbank had been owned by the rayon plants and the Watauga Development Corp., but several lots by the river were given to the city by Chancery Court in 1943.

David McQueen said neighbors in the Blackbottom community had taken advantage of this vacant, city-owned land to build pens for hogs and chickens, but this backfired when a flood killed all the livestock.

The land was neglected and overgrown, when Holsclaw decided to start clearing some of it in front of his home so his family could enjoy watching the river. Leota said he not only cleared the land, he began planting trees and keeping the lot mowed.

“One day some city employees saw my husband mowing the grass and told him he didn’t have to do that, they would mow it,” Leota said. That was the start of the beautiful Riverside Park, she said.

“Some of those workers did complain that when he planted trees that he didn’t plant them in a line. They told him the crooked line of trees made it harder to mow,” Leota said.

But it is for his work with the water department that Holsclaw is best known. On Sept. 14 Holsclaw was called before the Elizabethton City Council, where Mayor Curt Alexander read from a proclamation. Part of it said Holsclaw “has earned the respect and gratitude of all city employees.” Alexander closed by calling on all the citizens of the city “to honor Mr. James ‘Willie’ Holsclaw for all of his service to the city of Elizabethton and Carter County and publicly recognize and thank him for his service.”