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.