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Among her coworkers, she’s known as Momma J.
It’s a nickname Janet Ross has grown to cherish because of the deep affection she has for members of Bristol, Tennessee’s Public Works Department where she oversees the City’s mowing crew. They are like a close-knit family, she said, that works well together and takes pride in making public areas throughout the City look attractive.
“I like working where I live and making it look good,” she said. “I like living here, I like the people I work with. There really isn’t a downside to this job.”
Janet began working for the City as a school crossing guard some 30 years ago. The part-time position allowed her to get out of the house for a few hours each day, she explained, and spend the balance of her time raising four children. She’d been on the job for about six years when she got divorced and began looking for a full-time gig that would provide extra income.
She was hired to mow medians and public rights-of-way, grateful for the opportunity to work outside. It was an unusual job for a woman 25 years ago, she said, and some of the men who worked beside her were skeptical that she could keep up – at least until she proved them wrong. She became known for her attention to detail and was eventually tagged to install sidewalks, quickly demonstrating great skill at creating perfect corners and smooth edges.
“There’s a real art to it,” she said.
She earned a commercial driver's license (CDL) that allowed her to drive a transit bus, a dump truck, and an array of other large vehicles used throughout the City. In fact, she chuckled, she became somewhat unpopular at home when she was assigned to drive a snowplow to clear City streets, quashing her kids’ dreams of a day off school. It was all part of the job.
For more than a decade now, Janet has served as chief of the Public Works mowing crew, currently overseeing a team of five others who spend much of the summer mowing, picking up trash, trimming, and combatting weeds in public areas. In cooler months, they trim shrubbery, maintain alleys, and often help the leaf crew stay on top of that daunting task. And, Janet said, she spends about two month each year preparing for her favorite season.
“I get the Christmas wreaths ready every year,” she said, explaining that they are placed on light polls throughout the downtown area to create a festive environment for locals and visitors. “I fluff them and make sure the lights are working and put the bows back on. It’s my favorite thing to do.”
Many in our community recognize Janet, even if they don’t always know her name, because she takes great pride in her work and because she’s often the only woman working on the roadside.
"I kind of stand out,” she said. “A lot of people recognize me when they see me out somewhere.”
Janet was born in Washington, D.C., and moved often as a child, living in Maryland and various parts of Southwest Virginia. She was a teen when her family moved to Bristol, and it’s been home ever since.
“I would never live anywhere else.”
For a time before the COVID pandemic, she was assigned to train and supervise those performing court-mandated community service.
“I taught a lot of women to weed eat,” she said. “I also made some lifelong friends. Sometimes people make mistakes.”
Her willingness to see the good in others and lend a helping hand earned her two 2019 nominations for the Bristol First Award, an honor that recognizes City employees for exceptional service. One nomination noted Janet’s patience while training members of her crew to trim overgrown hedges in a busy area of the City. The other paid tribute to a random act of kindness, explaining that an off-duty Janet helped a community member load groceries into her car.
When not on the job, Janet does a little gardening at home, spends time reading her Bible, and carves out time for her four grown children, 10 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. She has custody of one grandson, she said, and one of her sons and his child also live with her. Much of her time is spent mentoring the youngest members of her family with the same basic values she used to raise her own children back in the day.
“I tell them to be a leader. Don’t be a follower. Be good to people. Help people when they’re being bullied and stand up for them. Love the Lord.”
After three decades of working for the City, Janet plans at least five more years. Even when she retires, she plans to come back each holiday season to leave her mark on our community by fluffing the holiday wreaths that make downtown Bristol a special place at Christmas.
As we prepare to celebrate National Public Works Week – May 21 through May 27 – the City of Bristol, Tennessee is proud to salute Crew Chief Janet Ross for always taking pride in her job, for her incredible attention to detail, for her genuine kindness toward others, and for the skillful work she does to make Bristol beautiful. She’s another perfect example of #bristolatwork.