By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN Ken Bakke has decided to call it a day after working 23 years as Cokato’s public works director. His last day is Tuesday, Nov. 30.
When first hired with the City of Cokato, Bakke moved his young family to Cokato from Buffalo, where he had been the wastewater treatment operator.
“It was easy coming to this community because of the cleanliness. I always wanted to raise my family in a small town, and Dassel-Cokato is a good school district,” Bakke said.
When talking to Bakke, it is clear that he is a proud husband and father. Barbara, his wife of 35 years, is a nurse at Lakeside Healthcare Center in Dassel.
Together they raised two sons and a daughter in Cokato. Bakke’s daughter, Ingrid works at AME Community Services in Cokato.
His eldest son, Nicholas is a middle school teacher in Willmar. Son Bjorn is a middle school teacher in Worthington. Both men are also pursuing education administration degrees.
Throughout his tenure as public works director, Bakke has made sure to maintain a safe working environment for his employees, maintaining compliance with OSHA regulations, he said.
Safety was a concern for Bakke, because he had two serious accidents while working for another city’s public works department.
The first happened a day after Bakke and his wife brought one of their newborn children home from the hospital. Bakke was at work when he was overcome by sewer gas in a manhole.
The authorities who went to tell his wife what had happened, thought he was deceased.
“All I can remember is a yellowish-light, then I woke up in the hospital,” Bakke said.
The second incident occurred when Bakke was hanging the city’s Christmas decorations. He was thrown off the back of the truck and fractured his skull.
“These accidents both could have been prevented if the proper safety measures were in place and followed,” Bakke said.
Bakke has never had a major injury happen to any of his employees in 23 years as public works director.
One of the major incidents Bakke did have to deal with, both as a public works director and as one of Cokato’s volunteer firefighters, was the Cokato tornado in 1992.
Bakke had only been public works director for five years when the tornado struck the town at around 11 p.m., the night of June 16.
He did not sleep for 92 hours, and only made it home to change clothes and shower, he said.
When the MN National Guard came to help, one of Bakke’s Army platoon buddies he had not seen for 20 years was with them. “It was a nice surprise to see someone from the past helping out my community,” Bakke said.
Although it was a difficult time, the town and surrounding areas made it through.
“It was really impressive the way the city and townships came together to help,” Bakke recalled.
Bakke was also recognized in the Rural Water Association’s newsletter following the tornado.
“They wrote a nice article about how I conducted myself. How I organized the staff of Cokato and 12 other cities during that time, and made sure the water was safe,” Bakke acknowledged.
Because of his experience and skill in dealing with the Cokato tornado, Bakke was asked by the City of Rushford to help and offer his expertise during the floods of 2007.
“I helped operate and maintain the wastewater plant and wells in the area. I also helped the Rushford public works director get the reports ready for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),” Bakke said.
Bakke has been recognized by his peers as a leader during his years as public works director.
Throughout the 1990s, he was president of the central section class B wastewater operators association, was wastewater operator of the year for central section class B, and was also voted to sit on the board of directors for wastewater operations of Minnesota.
Bakke has always had a good working relationship with the council and city administrators of Cokato. “We never had any issues that we couldn’t resolve and come up with answers for,” noted Bakke.
“Bakke has always been a good employee. He was very dedicated and looked out for all the people of Cokato,” city couniclmember Gordy Erickson said.
Bakke accomplished many major improvements while public works director, including the west side storm sewer project, the water tower near Century Avenue by Functional Industries, storm water holding ponds to manage the water before it went into the creek, the water treatment facility and wastewater treatment plant, and the Highway 12 reconstruction in 2000.
More recent improvements were rehabilitating the storm and water sewers, curbs and gutters, and new streetlights for the downtown project along Broadway Avenue.
“Bakke earned his spurs, coming up through the ranks to become public works director. He’s a good guy to work with, and has always done what was required of him,” Mayor Bruce Johnson said.
In his retirement, Bakke will continue to serve Cokato as a volunteer firefighter. He has also been elected to serve on the city council.
Not all of his retirement will be focused on continuing to serve the community, though. Bakke plans to spend more time at the family cabin near Mille Lacs Lake, fishing and hunting.