Walk into Keith Creel’s office out at the Cullman County Road Department on Alabama Highway 69, and you’re immediately struck by just how in-its-place everything appears.
Creel, a tall, angular, well-dressed 66 year-old, keeps a clean desk. Even the icons on his computer desktop are minimal and neatly arranged. It’s a good look for a guy who’s never more than a moment from the need to unfurl an oversized construction document and spread it out for close perusal.
For exactly 20 years, Creel has been Cullman County’s man in charge of guiding developers, property owners, and local utilities through the statutory process of bringing subdivisions from concept to reality. It’s not his only role — “I have to wear a lot of hats,” he’s quick to point out — but it’s the one that a revolving door of elected county officials have come to depend on, year in and year out, since Creel first took the job in 1999.
“I do a lot of different things, and it varies — sometimes from week to week,” explains the soon-to-be retiree, as he prepares to leave his job as the department’s Subdivision & Utility Inspector behind at the end of this month. “It all depends on what’s going on at the time, and I like that it’s diverse. I’m not always confined in the office — and I like that you get to deal with a lot of different people, too. Sometimes it’ll be rainy and you’ll spend days indoors; and then other times you’re out at a subdivision site, inspecting the roads as they’re being constructed.
“But working with subdivisions to be sure their roads meet our standards is the main thing I have to do. There’s no leeway in approving a subdivision plat proposal. The Code of Alabama states that these things have got to be approved by the county commission — not that they simply can be approved — so long as the developer meets the code requirements. I’m the county’s designee to make sure that happens.”
A Fairview graduate and lifelong resident, Creel and his wife Susie saw their two children — Mark and Julia — graduate from Creel’s Fairview alma mater while he was somewhere near the midway point in his two decades as a county public servant. Rural life is in his blood (he confesses to a childhood desire to grow up as a cowboy), and when he walks away from his job for the last time, he’s already got ideas about how he’d like to spend his well-earned free time.
“I won’t get bored, because I like to do so many things,” he says. “I like to work on things at home. I’ve already remodeled nearly every room in my house, but I lack one room and the basement — and they’ll probably get ‘attacked’ now. I also like buying and tinkering with old cars” — and indeed, over the years his garage has housed American classics like a ‘57 Chevy, an Impala SS, and a crystal-blue Pontiac GTO.
Creel mulled retirement for years before finally deciding to pull the trigger at the end of 2019, and he admits there’s no ideal time to say goodbye — especially when he’s enjoyed nearly all of the journey.
“There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to retire,” he says. “I like my job. Nothing’s 100 percent perfect in life, but I had gotten this one to about ‘90,’ and that makes it tough to leave. I’m grateful for what a great job I have had here. But I’ve got some other things that I want to do, and at my age, my hourglass is running out of sand.”
County commission chairman Kenneth Walker, who along with his two fellow associate commissioners will have to replace not only Creel, but chief engineer John Lang at the end of this year, says Creel is one of those reliably sharp minds whose expertise can’t easily be replaced.
“Keith’s one of a kind,” Walker confesses. “He came along under a completely different administration; really in another time, and he’s worked with so many commissioners who’ve come and gone since then. He’s one of those people who you hate to see going away, but I never want to tug and hold back someone who’s going on to better things. He’s got a lot left in him, and I’m happy for him at getting the chance to get out there and enjoy a retirement that’s well deserved.”
Unlike many retirees, Creel says he has the full support of his spouse, and he simply doesn’t envision an idle-hands scenario that’ll have him champing at the bit to hop back into the workforce. Before joining the county road department, he’d already put in a full career as a national accounts director at Cullman Products, and both he and Susie envision a post-retirement life that’ll keep him fully “employed”…on terms that are all his.
“She’s great about it,” he says with a pride that comes from knowing he’s a fortunate husband. “Three years ago, back when I first started thinking and talking about retiring, I was trying to aggravate her about it; saying ‘I’m gonna retire and let you support me!’ And she just looked at me and said: ‘That’s fine!’
“Some of my friends — I see them catching ‘heck’ to pay when they get bold and try to get away with something like that. But she’s great. My wife is great. My whole time with the county…it’s all been great.”