When you find a career you love, you enjoy the ride. That’s exactly what Marilyn Thomas has done for the past four decades as a technician with the Kentucky Division of Water (KYDOW).
Graduating from Western Kentucky University with a B.S. in Engineering Technology, Thomas began her career on July 1, 1978 with the KYDOW, which is in the Department for Environmental Protection, part of the Energy and Environment Cabinet located in Frankfort, Kentucky.
“I heard the Division was lots of fun,” said Thomas. “I have loved civil engineering and construction projects since I was a child and I figured, why not? So, I applied and I got the job.”
Thomas began as an Environmental Engineer with KYDOW’s Dam Safety and Floodplain Compliance section just as it was really just starting to take off.
“Dam construction was at its peak from the mid-50s’ to the late 70s’,” said Thomas. “There were several significant dam failures during that time as well starting the National Dam Safety Program.”
Thomas’s passion for dams and dam safety would span her career. And a great part of her enthusiasm is working with team members who provide another set of eyes and opinions when projects are challenging.
“Dam Safety has always been a team effort,” she said. “Some of us worked together over 20 years. We depend on each other for safety in the field. I owe a great deal to them.”
Her 40 years with the dam safety program have included field inspections, technical review, enforcement, emergency response and disaster recovery. She has worked with federal, state and local agencies as well as the private sector and public stakeholders. She also was member of the interagency group that developed the emergency response plan for communities located downstream of Wolf Creek Dam.
Thomas said Dix Dam is her favorite of all the dams across the state.
“It’s got it all, history, character and just the aesthetics of it,” said Thomas. “It even has an original generator at the base of it that is still used today to start the larger one at the top.”
She’s always ready to go into the field inspecting dams across the Commonwealth, where she’s encountered snakes, ticks, leeches, bobcats and has even seen the tracks of a mountain lion.
“When I come to work every day, I ask myself what kind of adventure I can get into today,” she said.
“I was maybe 112 pounds with my pack on, soaking wet, in the earlier years,” said Thomas. “With the kinds of physical demands I had to face every day, it was easy to see why.”
The terrain wasn’t the only obstacle that Thomas had to tackle. Being the first woman technician with KDOW’s dam safety section in the field, Thomas said that she has dealt with a rather masculine mindset.
“I’ve been called honey and little’un,” said Thomas. “I would come to an understanding with them that I was there to work and get the job done. We would get along just fine after that.”
Along with the physical changes to dam safety, Thomas has adapted with the changes of technology. With new, computer-mapping applications, risk assessment can be made by modeling simulations for worst case scenarios that assess the potential for dam failures. This makes the team “aware and prepared,” Thomas said.
“It’s still fun with new technology and new thrills,” she said. “It’s really exciting to see what’s available and can make this job better.”
Thomas makes it clear she has no plans for leaving the Division any time soon. Her supervisors are happy to hear that. Her expertise and is invaluable to the agency.
“It is amazing how much of Kentucky’s dam safety program history that Marilyn can tell you in the form of entertaining stories experienced throughout her career,” said Jory Becker, Environmental Engineering Branch Manager and Thomas’ supervisor. “She is a great asset and a really knowledgeable and fun individual to work with.”
So even with 40 years behind her, Thomas plans to continue her career with her usual verve.
“You never know when someone will call in and say we have a dam failing,” said Thomas. “I’m ready to put on my boots and head out.”