The Smithtown Highway Department plans to hang a new sign on its headquarters Saturday when the building is to be renamed after former longtime highway superintendent James E. Dowling.
The 90-year-old St. James resident is to be honored at an 11 a.m. dedication ceremony open to the public, at the department, which he served for more than 35 years.
"I thought that was pretty neat of them," Dowling said. "I didn't expect anything like that."
Smithtown Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen credits Dowling with "going green before going green was popular" by recycling old road material to create the base of a new road, and transforming the highway building into a complex with wood, welding and automotive shops.
"He built that place up beyond belief," said Jorgensen, whom Dowling hired. "I was proud to work for him."
Dowling began his tenure in 1960 when several miles of Smithtown's roads were unpaved, he said.
"I campaigned on a platform of doing . . . asphalt roads, building curbs and drainage, which was not being done out here," Dowling said. "We had some roads that were still woods, and we had to bulldoze through them . . . It was really a rewarding job to me."
With more people moving to Smithtown's newly created subdivisions from Queens and Brooklyn, the town was evolving, and the roads were too, he said.
Among his many projects: building Old Willets Path off Jericho Turnpike and asphalt roads in Smithtown Pines, as well as installing drainage systems on Nichols Road in Nesconset.
Former colleagues remembered Dowling as a firm, fair boss.
"What I took away from working with him was to treat everyone equal," said retired foreman Robert Owen, 71, of Baiting Hollow, adding that Dowling often gave workers second chances. "He was very honest and was for the little guy."
Retired foreman Curtis Mustapich, 63, of St. James, said Dowling ensured that equipment levers were color-coordinated so workers knew how to quickly navigate unfamiliar trucks during storms.
"People used to say 'it doesn't snow in Smithtown,' because that's the way the system was," Mustapich said. "It was kind of family. Everybody went tenfold because of the respect they had for him."
Dowling, who was a bombardier-navigator in the 8th Air Force during World War II and became a German prisoner of war after his plane was shot down, incorporated some of his military training on the job. Often unannounced, Dowling checked the cleanliness of trucks or measured the depth of asphalt laid down by housing developers.
"You'd never find him in his office," said Dowling's son, Jeffrey, 63, of St. James, a retired general supervisor. "He was always on the roads or around the building . . . making sure the equipment was getting repaired or parts being purchased."
Dowling stays active, restoring Ford Model A's in his back yard. "I'm a very lucky guy," Dowling said. "I appreciated that luck."