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Driver’s license examiners unite as a team until the end

By J.T. FEYJanuary 14, 2019
In this Dec. 20, 2018, photo, former driver's license examiners Ken Hejl, from left, Ruby Reichling and Terry Weaver pose for a photo in Watertown, S.D. All resigned on Nov. 16, ending a combined 70 years on the job in Watertown. (J.T. Fey/The Public Opinion via AP)
In this Dec. 20, 2018, photo, former driver's license examiners Ken Hejl, from left, Ruby Reichling and Terry Weaver pose for a photo in Watertown, S.D. All resigned on Nov. 16, ending a combined 70 years on the job in Watertown. (J.T. Fey/The Public Opinion via AP)

WATERTOWN, S.D. (AP) — In mid-November one of Watertown’s best teams called it quits. You probably didn’t know them, and for sure you won’t find their successes in any record book.

But listen to Ruby Reichling, Terry Weaver and Ken Hejl talk about their time together and one realizes they were a good team.

They were all driver’s license examiners at the State of South Dakota’s facility in Watertown. Reichling had the longest reign at 34 years. Weaver joined her in 1991, and Hejl was the newcomer, arriving in 2010. They served a combined 70 years.

They all retired on Nov. 16, 2018, a date chosen by Hejl, after they learned they didn’t have to wait until the end of the year to receive the benefits they had already earned.

“I knew I had their backs, and I hoped they felt the same way,” said Hejl to the Watertown Public Opinion . “We weren’t ever against each other. We worked as a team.”

While anyone who drives may have a story about their experiences receiving a license, the three examiners each have dozens, including how much more complicated the process of earning a license has become for examiners and students.

The Sept. 11, 2001 suicide attacks brought about the biggest changes. By 2010 prospective drivers needed three forms of identification to prove who they were, especially since a driver’s license is one of the key tools against fraud. Also required was a certified birth certificate.

“The hospital birth certificate has those cute little footprints on the back, and people would wonder how much more certified that can be,” said Reichling. “But it was certified by the hospital. It didn’t have the state seal on it.”

Women had perhaps the toughest time because they needed official proof of any changes in marital status. The Watertown examiners twice dealt with women who had been married seven times and divorced six.

“Can you imagine how someone would feel getting this one from California, this one from Nevada, this one from Utah, and so on?” Reichling said.

Weaver told how people would wait for hours to start the licensing process and then, after speaking with an examiner, learn they didn’t have the right documentation and couldn’t proceed.

“When all of this started it was misery for Terry and me,” said Reichling, who estimates that 85 percent of those seeking licenses didn’t have the proper documents. “People were absolutely crude about it.”

Following complaints to Pierre about the workload, Hejl was hired to serve as the guy who greeted people and checked their documents. Hejl’s career in retail management prepared him for what he was about to face.

“He caught a lot of crap, but because of his background he could defuse people, and I’m not kidding,” Weaver said. “By the time they caught up to us, most of them had calmed down.”

Reichling said people would also be irritated about the amount of time the examiners stood behind a counter, seemingly not doing anything. What they were doing were all the background checks required by the new U.S. Homeland Security department.

“People would think we were just sitting there, waiting to take their picture, give them the test and give them their license,” she said. “There was a lot of law enforcement involved, too.”

Not everyone left the building angry.

“Everything could have been perfect and they still would have come in upset,” Hejl said. “Sometimes they were very irate and they’d say some things, and I’d say we don’t want to hear any swearing.

“But so many times when they’d leave they’d be smiling and say thank you. They’d be 180 degrees different. That wasn’t just to me. It was also for these two people who were taking care of them.”

The driving test could bring about tense moments, especially if a new driver didn’t fully understand the concept of right-of-way. Some didn’t realize that oncoming traffic wasn’t going to stop just to allow them to turn. The route the examiners used included going south on S.D. Highway 20 and turning left onto Kemp Avenue.

“Right then and there you had to decide whether you can stop them in time or tell them to hit the gas and go, go, go, go!” Reichling said. “That happened a lot.”

Reichling also remembers an older woman driving into the ditch because she couldn’t turn the steering wheel fast enough.

“I had a real big problem with grabbing the steering wheel. In case there was an accident, who’s driving?” she explained. “I did grab it in this case, and I said, ’No, no we’re in the ditch. She didn’t pass the test.”

Younger drivers also presented problems, especially if they weren’t accustomed to four-lane traffic.

“Anytime you gave an instruction, the younger generation would absolutely think that they had to do it,” Reichling said. “I’d tell them to take a left turn up at the light, and they’d think no matter what, they had to do it.”

Weaver remembered when a 14-year-old from a small town took his test and then went for a drive. When he pulled onto Highway 20 he started crying because he had never been on a four-lane street before.

There were other oddities. Weaver recalled one test that he ended within a few blocks of starting. The reason — a very foul smell.

“I asked him what stunk so bad, and he said he had dead chickens in his trunk that he used for trapping,” Weaver said. “He said he didn’t even notice the smell anymore. We didn’t go any farther.”

Another test never got started. Weaver got into the car and noticed a white python sunning itself in the back window.

“We weren’t allowed to take pets,” Weaver said. “And besides, I hate snakes.”

Despite the problems, all three former examiners said they enjoyed their jobs in part because they worked together so well.

“Twenty-eight years you work with somebody and you never have an argument,” said Weaver. “Not once did we have a spat. I’ll tell you what; you can’t say that about too many people now. We got along great.”

Hejl recalls when he interviewed and was offered the job.

“The last thing the northeast supervisor asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. But so many times people would come in and we’d be laughing and joking. People would say this is the best license place in the state.”

The three considered retiring in 2013 but Reichling had to stay on because her family needed the health insurance. She told both men to go ahead with retirement, but they said they wouldn’t leave until she did.

“That’s why we became such a great team,” she said. “We never fought, and those two made it fun. They made it a blast. I can’t say enough good things about either one, and if I keep talking I’ll start to cry.”


Information from: Watertown Public Opinion, http://www.thepublicopinion.com

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