February 6

Samuel S. Baxter

Samuel S. Baxter

February 6, 1905:  Samuel S. Baxter was born in Philadelphia. Sam Baxter was the long-time Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department. “With the exception of military service during World War II, Sam Baxter spent his entire life living and working in Philadelphia. He was born in the city on February 6, 1905, attended public school, and graduated from high school in January 1921, just before his sixteenth birthday. He obtained a job with a sporting goods firm, but spent his evenings at Drexel Institute (now Drexel University) studying municipal engineering. One of his instructors was Thomas Buckley (APWA President, 1937), who was a senior engineer for the city. Buckley encouraged Baxter to take a civil service examination for a surveying position, and the young man became a chainman in a district field office in February 1923. Thus began a 49-year career of service to the city of Philadelphia….

He was an individual of exemplary ability, character, and charm. The roll of his accomplishments is long and enviable, but perhaps his most lasting and memorable legacy was his rare personal qualities. Sam Baxter was truly a public works “man for all seasons,” who, in the conduct of his professional and personal life, served as a paradigm for other engineer-administrators. He was self-effacing, bold, creative, competent, and adhered unwaveringly to the canons of his church and profession. Furthermore, he displayed a high degree of sensitivity to people, political acumen, ethical courage, and level-headedness under pressure that few public works leaders possess.”

Commentary:  Sam Baxter is the man who convinced me that public service, especially serving customers safe drinking water, was one of the highest callings an engineer could have. In a town that was slimed with patronage and dirty politics he was special. He had the highest moral principles and he told any Mayor that tried to control him where he could go—in the most gentlemanly fashion. I met him at a seminar at Columbia University for senior engineering students. Here was the guy running the Philadelphia Water Department taking an entire day off to hang out with undergraduates. He intrigued me.

I decided to write a senior project paper on wastewater reuse. That’s right, sewage to drinking water, or as we say in California, toilet-to-tap. I took a chance and asked Mr. Baxter (that’s what everyone called him; never “Commissioner”) if I could interview him. He agreed and was very kind to a kid who knew nothing about nothing having to do with wastewater reuse. In the course of my two interviews with him, I was impressed with him as a man and as a leader of this field of water and wastewater services. When the time came to choose among my job offers, I accepted a position with the Research and Development Unit of the Philadelphia Water Department.

I owe him a lot. I will never forget what he did for me and for the drinking water community.

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5 thoughts on “February 6

  1. Drew Brown

    Adam Levine forwarded information about your blog to me [has Adam mentioned that we have essentially a complete run of annual reports in our archive, 1801 to the present? Perhaps useful to you for your blog?]. Thank you for sharing your story about Sam Baxter’s visit to your class at Columbia. Can you tell me when that happened? We know from the many honors and awards recorded in the Philadelphia Water Department archives that his work was appreciated by his peers, but the personal touch is missing from that record. When did you work at the Philadelphia Water Department?
    Something that has always impressed me about Sam Baxter is that he came up through the ranks as an employee of the Bureau of Surveys in the Department of Public Works, building sewers and sewage treatment plants, but is probably most regarded at the Water Department today as a water treatment man — for his restructuring and rebuilding of the City’s water treatment plants in the 1950s and 1960s, which I believe was the major accomplishment of his first twelve or thirteen years as Commissioner of the new Philadelphia Water Department. PWD, as you doubtless know, took up the responsibilities of the former Bureau of Surveys and Bureau of Water of the Department of Public Works (and also some of the drainage responsibilities of the Department of Streets) when it was established in 1951 under the City’s new Home Rule Charter. Reallocating the treatment and distribution load from five filtration plants to three and reconstructing the raw water pumping stations were major undertakings. Yet Mr. Baxter appears to have accomplished the rebuilding without missing a beat. The personal qualities you ascribe to him were no doubt key to his success in all of this — accomplished, by the way, as the City’s population was growing to more than 2,000,000 — but do you have any insight into how he made the transition, from sewer builder to water treatment and distribution guru, without ruffling the feathers of the engineers who had been in the Bureau of Water prior to his appointment as Commissioner?
    [I was a fairly new engineer with the Department when our Torresdale Treatment Plant was renamed in Mr. Baxter’s honor, shortly after his death in 1982, I believe. I know that Mr. Baxter’s widow was there to be recognized by Comissioner Bill Marrazzo. I heard second-hand stories about Mr. Baxter from some of his former associates or their successors in sewage treatment (e.g. Ralph Hoot’s name was often invoked when I worked at Northeast Plant 1978 to 1981; George Carpenter had just left PWD to take a position in Atlantic County or Cape May County, etc.)] Those still at PWD in the late ’70s who had known Mr. Baxter remembered him as a great man, but I never heard any of them describe his success in overcoming what must have been at least subtle resistance to his control of the water side of the new Department. How did he do it?

    Reply
  2. Pingback: The Best of 365 Daily Blogs | safedrinkingwaterdotcom

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