By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Even Sid Russell’s wife isn’t so sure about his decision to retire.
He started at the bottom rung as a laborer in city of Tupelo’s public works department 25 years ago and will end his career in October as department head.
His departure from city government leaves some city officials wondering why. Russell, 53, has worked in the public works department for almost half of his life. His leadership in recent years in the department led to a four-day workweek to reduce costs and to eliminating nearly a quarter of staff and maintaining productivity.
When Russell’s retirement plans became public this week, Mayor Jason Shelton emphasized he didn’t ask him to leave. Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington offered himself as a reference if Russell looks for another job.
For a man in his early 50s to leave a job making $73,158 annually, Russell knows some people won’t understand him walking away from the job. But it makes sense to him.
In recent weeks, the Tupelo native has been more reflective about his career and hopes people working in low-level jobs can find inspiration in his career trajectory.
“I hope my success would encourage others who are the low man on the totem pole that you don’t know what the future holds,” Russell said. “It’s still possible to start at the bottom and work your way up.”
He started as a laborer and then received a series of promotions – equipment operator, assistant supervisor of the beautification division, supervisor, operations manager and then department head.
He’s a success story by many standards, so why is he leaving his safe job for future uncertainty? He admits to not knowing how the next chapter in his life will unfold. He’ll likely get another job but isn’t sure in what field. With a drafting degree from Northeast Community College and 14 credits shy of a landscape architect degree from Mississippi State University, Russell has considered returning to school.
He said he started thinking about retiring a year ago and finally made the decision on Sunday. But he’s thought about leaving his job for years. He’d planned on sticking around until he had 28 years of service for financial reasons but changed his mind.
“It was about the money,” he said. “It was for the wrong reasons.”
Walking through the shop at the public works headquarters at 604 Crossover Road, Russell spoke philosophically when a couple of police officers there asked about his decision to retire.
“Life is like a roller coaster,” Russell said. “You either choose to scream or enjoy the ride.”
Reflecting on the last decade of his life, Russell said he and his wife, Sandy, have experienced some of life’s toughest challenges.
Russell’s best friend, his dad, died in 2007. Then Sandy Russell’s aunt with Alzheimer’s disease and uncle with cancer moved in, staying there until both died.
Unable to work and also be a caretaker for her dying relatives, Sandy Russell left her job. This happened while they built what they thought would have been their last home on 80 acres of land in Pontotoc County.
Caught up in the national housing crisis and family financial struggle a few years ago, the house the Russells built was foreclosed on, and they sold 70 acres of land to cut expenses. Russell and his wife and youngest son now live in a 1,000-square-foot cabin on the side of a lake on what’s left of his property.
“It’s paradise to me,” he said.
After his father’s death six years ago, he didn’t crappie fish again until this year. Russell said recent life events have made him decide what’s really important to him. He calls his wife and two sons the “nucleus.”
As for what’s next for Russell, he still isn’t sure.
“I’m at peace,” he said. “But the uncertainly drives my wife crazy.”