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One On 1 Profile: From Street Sweeping To Snowstorms To Hurricane Sandy, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty Reflects On Fifty Years In The Department

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Cleaning up after the St. Patrick's Day Parade meant another busy day Monday for the Department of Sanitation and its commissioner, John Doherty, who announced on Friday that he is retiring. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile in March of 2013.

John Doherty has more than 50 years with the New York Department of Sanitation, and more than 50 years of stories.

"You go back to the '70s, we had a mess here," Doherty says. "It was terrible."

He's been battling snowstorms almost since day one.

"When I came on that first week, there was a snowfall. I'll never forget it. I learned about snow really quick that time," he says. "I got three days in the training center and that was it. Kid, you're on your own."

Doherty also learned long ago that when Sanitation has to clear the snow, he'll hear from a lot of people, including friends and family.

"They'll be the first ones to call you up. 'Can you do my block?' 'Hey look, we'll get there. 'Relax,'" he says. "I got about 6,000 miles I'm worried about right now."

Doherty started as a street sweeper and quickly worked his way up the department, eventually becoming commissioner from 1994 to 1998 and then again in 2002.

He's had to respond to intense criticism, for example, after the blizzard of 2010.

But he's been showered with praise since Hurricane Sandy.

"She comes over to me and she was like teary eyed," Doherty recalled of one woman after the storm. "She's saying 'I want to thank you so much for helping us. Your guys are so great.' To hear someone who just probably lost most of her belongings -- her house was still there, the structure was still there, but you could see it was severely damaged -- and all she wanted to do was thank the men and women who were out there cleaning the street."

We spent a day with the commissioner as the department was tweaking plans to end its special Sandy debris pickup.

"We're not just going to leave it in the street," Doherty says. "You see a contractor, you better get it cleaned up because we're going to take the name of your company because we're going to give you a ticket. You know, use the old threat."

Even in the pouring rain, a quick stop at Riis Park in the Rockaways showed the progress made since the first days and weeks after Sandy.

"I always like to see what’s out there. If you sit here and not out there, you’re like a boss riding with blinders on," Doherty says. "You’re not paying attention to what your job is. The job is in the street."

Many of the men and women of the department know that Doherty has served in just about every role in his five decades in Sanitation.

He understands the psychology of the job.

He knows the job does have its moments in the sun.

"There have been storms when pictures of sanitation workers were on the front page of the dailies -- 'oh, the saviors, the angels. They did a great job,'" he says.

But those moments are rare.

"Going out there and picking up garbage every day and throwing it in the truck, it's like an invisible service," Doherty says. "Nobody even notices it."

"You're not going to be a hero. You're not a cop, you're not a fireman," he added. "The only time you're going to be a hero is when you go out during a snowstorm and you clean up the streets quickly."

"You don't have many groupies going after sanitation workers," he says. "You will for police and fireman. But not sanitation workers that much."

Doherty grew up on Staten Island -- a picture of his beloved Fresh Kills hangs on his office wall.

Why beloved? When we think of Fresh Kills, we probably think landfill. Doherty thinks of swimming.

"When they were digging these pits out there for the clay, they would hit springs once in a while and pits would fill up with water," Doherty recalls. "They'd be great swimming holes when we were kids."

Doherty says his father advocated for the security of civil service jobs. Two of his brothers joined the fire department, but a neck injury prevented Doherty from getting in. So he went in to sanitation.

"This is the last job I wanted. I remember being very upset not getting into the fire department," he says. "I was assigned sweeping when I was new on the job in 1960 and it was in front of the bank where I worked. I had my hat pulled down around my head, my collar up. I was embarrassed to run into anybody I'd worked with and thinking I was a sanitation man sweeping the streets."

He worked his way up the department and was held in such esteem that in 1984, Doherty was invited to a summer course on urban policy at Harvard University.

"After about the first week I started to settle down and feel more secure with myself," he says. "But it was a little intimidating in the beginning."

In 1994, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani named Doherty commissioner.

There were happy times, like the Rangers' Stanley Cup parade and a string of Yankees parades.

But in 1996, his father suffered a stroke and his son was arrested on drug and weapons charges just as the city was belted with more than 20 inches of snow.

"I had a job to do and I had to go out and do it. Sitting home and holding my wife’s hand and crying about our son’s misfortune wasn’t going to do it," he says. "I couldn’t do anything about it. It was done and take it from there and move forward."

After four years on the job, Doherty moved to Northern California. He rode a motorcycle -- he was retired. Or so he thought.

"I enjoyed myself in the beginning but then I started getting bored," he says. "When I got that opportunity, I said I'm going back to work."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked him to take his old job back in 2002, allowing him to be closer to his children and grandchildren.

It was an easy decision.

But amidst the joy of the job, there's been hardship.

"I was married for 38 years and I’m divorced now, or separated now," he says. "I don’t know. I think the stresses of the job at times may have done that and maybe my own approach to things could've been different."

Doherty has seen the changes in New York over the past five decades reflected in the daily work of the Sanitation Department.

"The whole environment of the city has changed quite a bit in my time, and I think that improves street cleaning levels," he says. "People are a little more courteous to their neighborhood, they respect their neighborhood a little bit more."

With a new mayor next year comes uncertainty. These may be Doherty's final months on the job.

But he's in no rush to leave.

"It's a great job. You see things happen every day. You see things get accomplished every day. You work with a lot of great people," Doherty says. "Not too many people get that opportunity to go back to the job that they held and enjoyed doing for so many years."

The Sanitation Department says that as of Sunday, it had picked up 430,240 tons of Sandy related debris.

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