John Collier: On retiring and still raising hell
He may be ready to step aside as Milton’s project coordinator, but John Collier is not done, in his words, stirring up trouble.
“When I moved to Milton, I decided this is where I was going to put down roots. You can do one of two things: you can complain a lot and never do anything or you can become part of the solution. I decided to become part of the solution,” Collier said.
Collier, 66, will formally retire Thursday, April 30. He said he plans to enjoy life for a bit, and he would like to buy a second home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
“You get to be age 66, it’s time to call it a day. At least from this kind of work. It was time for a change,” he said.
Collier has held just about every public service hat Milton has available. He’s been on the board of adjustment, historic preservation committee, town council and now town staff as project coordinator.
A bookish man with a gravelly voice, thick goatee and long hair, Collier got involved in town affairs after moving to Milton nearly 20 years ago. He was working at Delaware Department of Transportation at the time, and he became very concerned when he learned a developer was proposing to put 19 homes on a 3-acre lot near his home on Colter Street.
“I thought it was too dense and was going to cause a traffic problem for the narrow street I live on,” he said. “That was my first appearance in town, raising hell.”
Collier said the subdivision eventually was reduced from 19 homes to eight. He showed up to all the meetings, so it was only a matter of time before he would get asked to start serving on town boards and committees. His first, in 2003, was serving on the recently formed board of adjustment. The historic preservation committee grew out of the board of adjustment, as a way to discuss building applications in the town’s historic district, and Collier served there too.
He served on town council starting in 2012. “I like to say I wasn’t elected, I was selected, because I ran unopposed,” Collier said.
In 2014, the project coordinator position became available, and Collier resigned his town council seat in order to pursue the job. “I realized sitting at the town council table that council is only as good as the staff that supports them. I really felt council was not receiving the level of service from this job that they should get. It was an opportunity for me,” he said. “I took a leap of faith. I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell.”
Collier spent nearly 40 years at DelDOT, mostly as a surveyor. Collier said as a younger man he was a bit aimless, failing to graduate from college. Not wanting to be broke all his life, Collier said he wised up and sought a job with some long-term security that would allow him to grow over time. He started out at DelDOT as a laborer.
“It’s hard to get lower than that in the Department of Transportation,” he said, but he worked his way up.
His knack for self-education came in handy in Milton as well, when as project coordinator, he served as advisor to the historic preservation commission. To learn all about the town’s nationally recognized historic district, Collier read books on colonial architecture, and learned to recognize different periods.
Born in Texas, Collier was a military baby. He came to Delaware in 1957 when his father was stationed at Dover Air Force Base, and grew up in Wyoming. “I’ve never been anyplace else,” he said.
Collier said he started coming to Milton in the 1970s, a time when he didn’t have much money. He said he would come to town twice a month to visit the company store of the King Cole Cannery to pick up boxes of meals that cost $25 apiece. “Gas was cheap, and I couldn’t do better at a regular grocery store. That’s how I started coming to Milton,” Collier said.
He moved to Sussex County in 1992, bouncing around the county a bit before settling in Milton. “What a lease on life that was,” Collier said.
It helps that his wife, Kathy, is a Milton native; Collier has four children, all grown up, and six grandchildren. While he’d like to get a home in the Shenandoah Valley - he has family that lives outside of Charlottesville - Collier said he’s never going to leave Milton entirely. For one, Kathy lives with complex regional pain syndrome, a chronic condition that requires treatment every eight weeks to alleviate pain in her legs, and her doctors are all in Philadelphia.
“Before we got to the fellow in Philadelphia, we had reached a point where she couldn’t walk without the assistance of a walker or a wheelchair. Now she’s back to where she’s ambulatory. It’s kind of a roller-coaster ride for us. Her treatment in Philadelphia holds us to Milton,” Collier said.
But Collier is not ready to be put out to pasture just yet. He said public service is his hobby, and he’s considering taking another swing at town council, although he hasn’t made any formal decisions.
“I don’t mind stirring the pot a bit,” Collier said. “I’ve been a public servant all my life. I take delight in being able to help people with issues and put forth ideas that make this a better place to be. I think Milton is a really nifty place.”