There are things well worth knowing about Walter “Buddy” Shuman, the man who just stepped down from public service after 30 years in Bryan County’s Public Works department.
But first, know that his concentrated gaze at county commission meetings is practically legendary, and yet Shuman said he doesn’t realize he’s staring.
“I’ve had people tell me I look too serious, that I take things too seriously and I need to smile and ease up,” he said. “But my mind’s always running. I’m always thinking about what needs to be done. When I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking about my job.”
In short, the stare is work related.
And then know that Shuman’s dedication is perhaps most appreciated by those in a position to know how much work he’s done for the county and its residents in his 30 years, first as a motor grader operator who came on board in 1989 and then while rising through the department until he replaced Darrell Newman as director in 2014 when Newman retired.
“Employees like Buddy, people like him, are what make our county great,” Bryan County Administrator Ben Taylor said during a retirement party held Jan. 31 at the J. Dixie Harn Community Center in Pembroke. “I wish him well.”
Bryan County Commission Chairman Carter Infinger noted Shuman’s longevity is rare these days.
“Thirty years is a long time in one place,” Infinger said. “We’re going to miss him greatly. He’s leaving big shoes to fill. He’s going to be hard to replace.”
Others, such as Pembroke City Administrator Alex Floyd and Bryan County Tax Commissioner Carroll Ann Coleman said much the same, praising Shuman for going the extra mile.
Shuman said that’s something he was taught early on by county leaders such as Phil Jones – “that the customer is always right.”
It’s also apparently partly ingrained.
“I’ve always tried to be conscientious in my work,” he said. “I don’t like to make mistakes.”
Here’s something else worth knowing about Shuman. Behind the gaze is a man who by all accounts has always worked to provide for his family.
“He is very family oriented,” his wife, Sally, said. “He’s very dedicated to his work, too, and he’s been a hard worker all his life. In 38 years of marriage, he’s never called in sick but two times that I know of.”
On one of those times, Sally Shuman said she called in for her husband because he was “too sick to call in for himself.”
The last time? That was when their last child was born.
In a community where it seems about every other person was born somewhere else, Shuman is about as local as it gets. His father was born and raised in Clyde, now part of Fort Stewart.
Shuman was born in Savannah, but attended elementary school in Richmond Hill before moving back to Savannah and graduating from Richard Arnold High in 1975.
After that, he worked for a decade as a crane operator for the Georgia Ports Authority before moving to Ellabell in 1986 to raise a family that now includes four children, Walter Shuman Jr., Amy West, Acacia Davis and Shaun Shuman, and grandkids.
Back in 1986, the county’s population was 12,299, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And, eventually, Shuman decided to seek work closer to home.
The rest is about growth, both Shuman’s and the county’s. When he started, there were perhaps a dozen or maybe 14 employees.
Back then, there were only a handful of buildings to maintain. Back then, North Bryan was bigger, still, than South Bryan.
Nowadays, Bryan County has somewhere around 40,000 residents. South Bryan has outgrown North Bryan by a sizable margin.
Bryan County’s Public Works has grown as well, particularly in recent years as the county’s government invests in new equipment and more employees to keep up. There are now roughly 27 employees in Public Works, the third biggest department in county government behind only Bryan County Sheriff’s Office.
Shuman, who said he gets to the office at 6 a.m. and doesn’t knock off until 5:30 p.m., said his workers are as good as anybody’s out there.
“We’ve got some good people, from engineering on down. They’ve saved the county a lot of money over the years,” he said. “They care about the county and the people in the county, and most of my guys live here, too. I’m proud of them, and I’m proud of the work they’ve done. I think the county is, too.”
If there’s one project that proved Bryan County’s road department could compete with anyone, for Shuman it’s the 3.3-mile Harris Trail Extension, which his department built from the ground up.
Others, like Warren Hill Road and Caesarstone Drive in South Bryan also proved the county could build a road as well as mammoth contractors like R.B.
Baker, as far as Shuman is concerned. And do it for less money.
“You save a lot of money doing it yourself,” Shuman said.
But while road work takes up the biggest part of Public Work’s schedule - there are more than 200 miles of paved road and 112 miles of dirt roads to maintain, the department also handles maintenance and repairs on all the county vehicles, mosquito patrol, building maintenance and keeping canals free of debris, human trash and beaver dams.
There are 90 miles of such canals in Bryan County, and Shuman knows them intimately, partly from “getting out and walking them,” and also from the institutional knowledge he credits his former supervisor Newman for passing on.
“We maintain about 20 or 30 miles right now, but we’ve set a goal to try and clear five miles a year and add to the 20 or 30 miles over time,” Shuman said.
As the county has grown in population, the growth in the department has been inevitable as the rising demand for services and the need for equipment to provide them.
Once, Bryan County sent its vehicles to Western Auto in Pembroke for service. Now, it has its own shop and a full time maintenance staff of five to work on more than 200 vehicles and other assorted pieces of equipment, ranging from law enforcement vehicles to firetrucks to chainsaws and lawn mowers.
“It takes equipment and more people,” Shuman said. “When you don’t have the people and equipment you’re really not fixing stuff, you’re just putting out fires or putting band aids on the problem.”
Shuman credits Taylor and commissioners with investing in Public Works in recent years.
“Our upper management is good,” he said. “We’re getting something we’ve needed for a long time, and Ben’s helped us out a lot.”
Shuman has had to weather a few storms over 30 years, and two come immediately to mind Matthew and Irma, the hurricanes that impacted Bryan County in 2016 and 2017.
Once Matthew passed through, Shuman recalled trying to get through to South Bryan to get roads cleared. He and a crew headed down Highway 204 to find a tree downed at Morgan’s Landing and the highway closed.
The crew turned around and went another way, heading to I-16 and then down I-95 to get to South Bryan. And then they had to clear roads.
There also was the Black Creek tornado in 1998, and an ice storm some time ago and the snowstorm in 2018.
“It gets pretty hectic at times,” Shuman said.
And it might again, with Shuman set to stay on part time for a while to help keep the department running until a replacement is hired.
Shuman’s advice for his successor, whoever that may be?
“Have a good rapport with people,” he said. “I try to treat everybody like I want to be treated, and most have been real welcoming to me over the years.”
That philosophy drew a wide range of people to Shuman’s retirement party, including developers who had to make sure their projects were up to his standards.
The turnout surprised him, he said, adding he was grateful to those who came to see him.
“Looking back, I’ve had a good career,” he said. I’ve enjoyed it, I really have.”
Up next will not be a honey do list, Sally Shuman said. In the near future, she wants her husband to do what he wants to do, like hunt and fish and work on an old pickup he bought to tinker with. To that end, one of Shuman’s retirement presidents was a rare shotgun.
“He’s worked hard all his life,” she said. “I want him to get some rest for a while.”
That will happen. Shuman said the gun shoots well.
But only 62, Shuman said there’s more work that can be done ahead.
“I’ll do some fishing and hunting,” Shuman said. “But I’ll still do something here or there. I’ve worked all my life.”