Morrell leaving TDOT after 33 years

Joe Morrell will have to leave his Òmoving officeÓ behind when he retires from TDOT on Sept. 16.

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
Joe Morrell has been with Tennessee Department of Transportation 33 years. He started out in 1972 in Engineers and accepted the job as Highway Maintenance Supervisor in 1989, taking care of about 300 miles of state and federal roadway in Carter County and a little bit of Johnson County.
But as of midnight Tuesday, Sept. 16, Morrell will no longer be running calls at all hours of the night and day. That is the date he has picked to retire.
"I think it's time to give it up and let some younger person have it," said Morrell, who will be 65 in October.
During his 33 years as supervisor, Morrell has seen his department lose the equivalent of one employee a year. "At one time we had 33 employees; now we have 10, due to cutbacks, etcetera," he said. "When we had 33 employees, we had roughly 170 lane miles, now I've got 300 [miles]."
Morrell is able to click off several highs and lows which occurred during his tenure with TDOT. "Getting the C.R. 'Doodle' White Overlook" on Highway 67 is No. 1 on Morrell's list of favorite moments. "It's the first time and only time that has ever happened to just a regular employee," he said.
Morrell said another high was getting the new highway up Stoney Creek and the new four-lane to Bluff City. "That was super to the economy in Carter County."
He is appreciative of the people he has worked with in Carter County, among them Carter County Highway Superintendent Jack Perkins and Carter County Sheriff John Henson.
"The relationship I've had with Superintendent Perkins and Sheriff Henson, we've had a very good working relationship and we've helped each other out. I'm going to miss that," he said. He also has worked with some "wonderful people" on the state level. "I came in under Winfield Dunn. He was a good one," he said.
Probably the worst moment on the job, according to Morrell, occurred during the blizzard of 1998 when a telephone line became entangled in Doodle White's truck while he was working to remove snow from the roadways. "He was trying to get the telephone line off and it flipped him up in the air about 25 feet and he came down on his head. He still is hurting from it," Morrell said.
Another sinking moment was when Elizabethton attorney David Crockett lost a bid for Congress. "He and Ralph Cole as representative could have helped Carter County more than anybody we could have put in there," Morrell said.
"Of course, the 1998 flood and all of the lives and damage that cost" will live in memory as a low point of Morrell's career, as well as the 1993 and the 1998 blizzards, he said.
"The 1993 blizzard, I had 17-foot drifts on Highway 143 on Roan Mountain. We measured it with 25-foot rods. Basically, as far as roadwise, it was a lot worse than 1998. Of course, 1998 was a lot warmer. It broke a lot of trees down and closed roads; but that one in 1993, it was down to zero and stayed that way for a couple of weeks. Elk Mills and Little Milligan were without power for about a week."
When the 1993 blizzard hit, Morrell said he started out with eight trucks. "I was keeping up with the blizzard, which started at 2 in the afternoon. By 7 o'clock we had probably 2 feet of snow, and by 8 o'clock, every truck I had, except one, was broken down and I couldn't get them back till the next day. I 'bout had a nervous breakdown!" he said.
"The main thing we were trying to do was keep it off the roads. But after my trucks went down, it just continuously snowed until the next day. We had snow up to our eyebrows, and then a lot of these 4-wheelers got out on the highways and did donuts and all of that froze and just made it impossible almost to clear it off.
"It took us over a week. We worked round-the-clock, 24 hours a day, for about 10 to 11 days to get the roads completely clear. In 1998, we had everything cleared in about six or seven days," he said.
But Morrell's first disaster, as strange as it may seem, came from Hurricane Hugo. "We got the tail-end of it. In Roan Mountain it turned over cars and flooded up on Highway 143 up on the Roan," he said. "We've had three tornadoes since I've been supervisor."
When Morrell first began his career with TDOT, his pay per month was comparable to what some people now make in a week. "I started out at $350 a month. They kept us a month behind and I had to work two months before I got a paycheck. The first one I got like $65 clear," he said.
Morrell has seen numerous policy changes during his career -- some good, and some that have cut employment, he said. "So far, I haven't had to lay anybody off. But they are revamping TDOT. ... They could call us tomorrow and tell us all to go home."
Future road projects for Carter County include the Northern Connector and Gap Creek Road, which will go forward thanks to former Rep. Cole, Morrell said.
Other projects include redoing a small stretch of the intersection at the Roadrunner in Hampton. "They're going to curve it and build a better road. They're waiting on an environmental permit, as usual," he said. Traffic will be rerouted around by Hampton Bait Shop.
Also on tap in about two to three weeks is the resurfacing of Highway 67, according to Morrell. "We're going to repave from the Roadrunner all the way to Johnson County."
While Morrell's last day on the job will be Sept. 16, he's not planning to just sit around. "I'll probably take a couple of weeks off and then start doing something. I'll probably find me another job. I really will miss working with the people out here in Carter County," he said.