This gentleman was a fixture in Kingsport because of his family’s history there and his role in the community, yet he was not as widely known in Johnson City, where he spent his entire career.
Jim Sipe was the son of Charlie & Nelle Sipe. His father was a veteran of World War II and was a longterm employee of Tennessee Eastman. His mother was a homemaker and volunteer in the community and her church.
Jim played football at Dobyns-Bennett and earned a scholarship to Tennessee Tech, where he obtained a Civil Engineering degree. Jim was well known to all tuning in to the Indian football broadcasts, serving as an analyst for his high school throughout his adult life.
With a background in construction, Jim came to work with the city in 1985 when the Water & Sewer Services Department was expanding two of its three wastewater treatment plants. He started as a resident project inspector, overseeing contractors’ work during capital projects, ensuring compliance with contracts and working through unforeseen issues. In summary, Jim’s role was to make sure our water and sewer customers got their money’s worth.
If you are an existing customer, the service you receive is due — in part — to Jim. Some of the key projects he oversaw involved expansion or renovations to all five of the city treatment plants, construction of a new raw water intake on the Watauga River and construction of 25 percent of the current water system storage.
He also worked on large water-distribution projects, including big pipe lines and pumping stations for moving water from our supplies to the customer’s tap, and the same type of project in the wastewater system, where we collect and return water to the wastewater plant for safe treatment and recycling back to the local streams.
Jim also assisted in transitioning a number of our key facilities to having standby power units for severe weather events so services could be provided without interruption.
Jim’s public service did not stop with our department. He took an active role in emergency planning and response, which included local volunteer fire service, hazardous materials response and trench rescue.
He also facilitated many training activities for emergency events for employees in the Water and Sewer Service Department. That training was practically applied during the North American Rayon building fire in Elizabethton. Jim was our department’s representative at the onsite command center, where he assisted with timely decisions on how the event was affecting water quality in the Watauga River and how it potentially could affect our water supply.
Jim was known in our business as a “heavy” civil guy. Not because Jim was a big man — although he was a very big man — but because he understood how plans and specifications transitioned from the written word to excavations, steel rebar and concrete pours. We were fortunate to have this unique skillset on staff.
In June 2017, Jim and I met as we did annually to review his future plans and our workload. He indicated that in the summer of 2018 he planned to retire. In the past five years, Jim had buried both his parents and his wife, Phyllis, had retired from Kingsport City Schools. They wanted to travel, and 10-hour (or longer) days based on the unique schedules of each project and contractor would not allow that. He wanted to finish a couple of key jobs that were under way and after that, he said he would retire.
Jim was following the model that many of us envision and that many of our employees follow: graduate, find a job you enjoy, have a successful career, and retire to enjoy your family and the rest of your life.
But life is not always that predictable. I remember getting the call from Phyllis on a Sunday in July. Jim had some history with kidney stones, and earlier in the day he had gone to the emergency room with some complications with his urinary system. Before the end of the day he would be diagnosed in the advanced stages of kidney cancer. Surgery was required but it would be complex, because the cancer had also spread beyond the kidney. It was scheduled for within 10 days, so Jim’s friends and co-workers were able to visit over the following week.
He didn’t ask why this had happened or question what would come next. He just maintained the same positive attitude he’d always had. Heartbreakingly, the surgery was complicated and Jim did not make it. On July 18, about a month after we’d discussed his desire to retire, he passed away.
A year ago this month, our department lost a great employee and friend who played a key role in providing a safe, reliable water supply as well as protecting public health and the local environment. I wish everyone could’ve known Jim, but at least maybe a few more now know that this fixture of the Kingsport community was an incredible Johnson City employee who spent most of his life helping us to plan and construct facilities for our citizens.
When safe, reliable drinking water comes out of the tap and runs down a drain, please think of Jim and our other employees — both current and past — who have dedicated their careers to make that happen.
Tom Witherspoon is water and sewer services department director for the city of Johnson City.