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VG’s Mike Cline reflects on long career in engineering

Photo: Tony Hooker 2021 Villa Grove Volunteer of the year Mike Cline.

By Tony Hooker
To say that Mike Cline was born to work on protecting the environment through sound practice in the field of waste water really isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination. Cline, a registered professional engineer who calls Villa Grove home, grew up in the industry, as his grandfather owned a plumbing, sewer and Roto-Rooter company in Akron, Ohio that both he and his father worked for. I recently sat down with Mr. Cline, who was named the 2021 Villa Grove Volunteer of the year, to discuss those days, his involvement in several local projects, and his love for Rugby, among many other things.

Mike, can you please explain to me exactly what you do?

I’m a civil engineer. I specialize in water resources engineering. Flooding. Storm sewers. Drinking water. Sanitary sewers and waste water treatment. Right about the time I was going to college, the EPA formed and there was quite a bit of demand for younger engineers to go into the field. Most civil engineers were bridge or road designers, but I was there at the era of waste water.

Did you always want to be an engineer?

I thought you might ask that. <smiles> I’m a third-generation sewer guy. I have a picture of my father and my grandfather, taken in Akron, OH in front of one of his trucks. He owned a septic tank cleaning company. He would come out and clean out your septic tank, and he had a roto-rooter franchise. Cline Plumbing and Heating was the name of the company. My grandfather, who only had an eighth-grade education from Marshall, Illinois, went on to create a manual for sewer/septic systems including a wastewater treatment plant, and I think that was in 1953. He would build them and service them. So that’s probably where I got the initial interest. Plus, Akron was probably the most polluted city in the United States at the time. Goodyear, Goodrich and Firestone tires were made there. Everyone who was older that I knew when I was younger passed away from lung ailments. The plants were on the west side and we were on the east, and the suet from the tire plants would rise up out of the smoke stacks and come right down on us. You could make good wages and they employed a lot of people, but you eventually paid the penalty. Our river that goes from Akron to Cleveland actually caught on fire and burned for 11 days. That’s why I was motivated to get into all of this, to try to clean up things a little bit.

Did you go to high school in Akron?

I did. 

How did your grandfather end up going from Marshall to Akron?

In the 1920’s, when automobiles really started becoming popular, they needed tires, and Akron had that right mix of limestone in the water that you could vulcanize rubber. You could ship it into Akron and Cleveland via Lake Erie and they were hiring a lot of people. Quite a few people from Illinois and Indiana moved to Akron to find work. My grandmother came up from Tennessee and my grandfather came over from Illinois. Good wages, good hours and good employment. Interestingly, once the plants unionized, he and seven other guys decided to appeal to Goodyear to make cleaner work conditions and they all got fired and they all went to the Ohio Supreme Court, where they won an injunction which came with a certain amount of money, but they were told that they could never again work at Goodyear. He bought a two-acre site almost on the eastern side of the county and he saw a sewer contractor coming down the street, the same street the Soap box derby was run on, and he stopped him and asked what he was doing. This was in 1938 and it was a WPA project and he was laying sewer tile because some day there will be a big pump station here to pump waste to the treatment plant. Every day, he would go out and talk to the guy, and finally the guy said “Since you’re so interested in this work, why don’t you buy me out?” He had the money from winning the lawsuit, so he bought two septic pumper trucks, a roto rooter franchise, two dump trucks a backhoe and a little more land to create a stockpile, so I grew up with manholes and sewer pipes around. I used to get into the man holes and pay astronaut! <laughs>  My dad, my uncle and my grandfather would go out and work from dawn until dusk, and I actually helped them, believe it or not. My job was to clean out the rotor rooter coil. They game me a pair of gloves and goggles, and a tool, and every day I would clean out that coil after it had been in somebody’s sewer line. I eventually went to Ohio State University and got my degree in engineering in Water Resources. I wanted to clean things up and also continue the legacy of my family.

How did you come to Villa Grove?

I took a job in Indianapolis with an engineering firm, and they received approval to do a significant water resources project at Lake Charleston, in Illinois. They had some Army Corps of Engineers money to use. It was interesting because the Embarras River went there and it silted up the one lake they had for their water treatment plant, so they decided to cut a new channel for the river and use the material from that to set up a berm with a Bentonite Slurry trench in it and then we would pump water out of the river into the lake. We added eight feet of storage to the lake. I did the pump station design, but they needed an inspector to go out there, so I volunteered.  I was already playing Rugby, I played at Ohio State, and I ended up coaching Eastern Illinois University’s Rugby team. I went to a party and there were some girls there that I recognized from the city mowing crew, and there was Judy (Sergent, his wife) , at EL Krackers. I talked to her that night, she told me where she lived and a couple days later I rode my bike 4 miles to her house, and from there it was off to the races! 

When was this?

It was 1979-80. I met her and two years later we were married. Two years after that, we had our daughter. Then, I got a chance to come back. The company I was at wanted to start an Illinois office, and they were trying to decide between Springfield, Bloomington or Champaign. I said I would go, if I could work in Champaign. That was good and I did well with that, but then they wanted to close the office and I said no, because I was starting a family, so I teamed up with two other engineers and joined Hannum & Wagle and became Hannum, Wagle and Cline. We started out with 20 employees and we grew it to 80 people and opened up four offices. We had a great mix of people. One partner was a business man, one partner was a sales guy, and I was an engineer. We did well with it until 9/11 when everything contracted. So that’s how I came to Villa Grove. I met Judy (Sergent) at EIU. 

How did you end up playing Rugby?

I was drafted in the Viet Nam War, but I swung an appointment to the US Air Force Academy because I figured if I was going to have to go I wanted to be in the air. An RAF guy taught us how to play rugby while I was out there. Then, about a year and a half after I reported, President Nixon, under political pressure, ended the draft and they basically said if you wanted to leave a service academy, you could go and be honorably discharged. It was really a pressure to scale back the military. This would have been in 1973, so I did that and went back to Ohio State and finished up there. I walked on the rugby field at Ohio State and I knew what I was doing because of my time in the air force. I played for 18 years and then refereed and coached for another 25 years, all over the world. Australia, New Zealand. Maryland. Rugby is really a game of support. It’s different from American football in that you don’t have downs, the clock runs continuously. When you’re tackled you just put the ball down and pull your arms away and let the next guy take it. Tackling is different. You have to be a good kicker, and I was a pretty good punter. I went to a camp at Akron University and Gary Collins, the punter for the the Cleveland Browns, who had just won the NFL championship in 1964 over the Baltimore Colts, taught me how to punt. He showed us how punt, how to hold your toe, how to aim for a guy on the sidelines, basically everything he knew and I learned how to punt a football and then it wasn’t a big change to kick a rugby ball, which is just a fat football. Becoming a good kicker was very helpful for me in rugby. 

Are you still involved?

No. I don’t think it would be fair. In rugby, you literally have to touch the ball down, that’s where the term touchdown comes from, to score a goal. If you’re pushed out of bounds or they pick you up and throw you out of bounds before you touch it down, it’s no score, even if you cross the goal line.  I would hate to have a player dive to the corner of the endzone and touch it down as the tackler gets there and me not be able to see it because I couldn’t keep up. There’s only one referee. I played probably 5 years too long, so all my injuries to my knees, hips ankles and wrists occurred in the last five years of my playing career. I put a lot into it, but I got so much more out of it. I have lifelong friends that I text every day. We had 67 rugby guys show up at our wedding! <smiles> We had a good team at Ohio State, finishing third in the nation my sophomore year, but that, other than the friendships, is in the past now. 

Are you retired?

Yes, I retired at the end of 2019, right at the end of my 45th year as an engineer. Now, I have a part time job with the firm in Indianapolis that I retired from. I set up a little one-man LLC. They call me when they need me. 

You were involved in projects in Villa Grove and Tuscola, right?

When I first came back to the area, I wanted to build relationships with guys who knew how to get grant money and I got to know a guy at the Champaign Regional Planning Commission and another for Coles county, and I would turn them on to grant opportunities. It worked both ways as they would get the grants and get paid to administer them, and it was engineering work for me and Tony. The very first project we got was Camargo. Mike Pangburn was the village president at the time. I talked to Ron Hunt, Villa Grove’s mayor at the time, about selling water to Camargo. I told him he would need to build a water tower on the south side of Villa Grove, and Camargo could then build a water tower that could back feed Villa Grove. I wrote up a study and I said that we could get it done, with 75 percent of the project being grant funded, and we got it done. It took both water towers being built at the right time so we could get the hydraulics right, and we laid an eight-inch pipe from Villa Grove to Camargo, and it worked. That was good when. I would come up with how big and tall it needed to be and then I’d give it to Tony (Vandeventer) and he would draw it up. We did the one in Tuscola. Longview’s stand pipe. Hindsboro, Arthur, Atwood, Hammond, Bement and a few others in about a two-year period. After 9/11, we had to move back to Indiana, Judy didn’t want to, but we had to, and I started getting into a whole lot of different things, other than just engineering work. I started the Indiana chapter of Engineers without borders, I started doing prison ministry through the Methodist church and putting back into the trade of engineering. Finally, when we were able to move back here when I retired. I got a lot done and I helped a lot of people along the way. I trained a lot of engineers like Tony. Probably a dozen young engineers could say that they learned a great deal from me. Not so much the drafting or the testing or that sort of thing, but how to deal with people.  Be prepared to cover everything.  Walk around the block, spend an extra ten minutes. If you can figure out a way to pay for something, you’re probably going to get the job. Always, always know that a contractor, no matter how nice they are, are interested in time and money. My last two years, probably 90 percent of my job was mentoring. I had a great career and I got a lot of things done.

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