My Water Legacy: For Dustin and Sylvan Coles, Wastewater Begins at Home

April 26, 2017

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Sylvan Coles (right) stands with his wife, Katrin, at a family member’s wedding in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

Sylvan Coles (right) stands with his wife, Katrin, at a family member’s wedding in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

When Sylvan Coles first joined the Kansas Water Environment Association (KWEA) in 1979, some of the chapter’s “old-timers” made an impression on him that stuck. “They sold me on the importance of making a substantial commitment [to the profession,]” he said.

And commit he did.

If you want to visit KWEA’s offices, you’ll need to call Sylvan first. The association, after all, has been based in his home for the past 31 years. As KWEA’s secretary-treasurer, Sylvan is responsible for everything from organizational finances to the operator certification program.

For his “day job,” Sylvan has spent the past 47 years working for the City of Topeka. “I started in maintenance in 1970,” he said, “and in the years since, I have worked in every area related to wastewater treatment.” In addition to positions in operations, process control, and biosolids, he also has worked in the city’s Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant laboratory. For 26 of those years, he also was attending college part-time, accumulating associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees.

From left, Sylvan and his son, Dustin Coles, who both work for the City of Topeka’s wastewater department, take a picture together at the Okland Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

From left, Sylvan and his son, Dustin Coles, who both work for the City of Topeka’s wastewater department, take a picture together at the Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

“My mom was on welfare when I was growing up, and I was on my own paying for college,” Sylvan said. “So I had to just keep nibbling away at it. Of course, I was also working full-time, running an association on the side, and raising a family.”

But Sylvan persevered. Getting an education was important to him — as was inspiring the next generation of WEF members to see water and wastewater management as a viable career. That included his son, Dustin.

Dustin (left) received encouragement to pursue a career in wastewater from his father Sylvan (right). The father-son duo are pictured at the city’s Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

Dustin (left) received encouragement to pursue a career in wastewater from his father Sylvan (right). The father-son duo are pictured at the city’s Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

Sylvan started early, bringing the youngster along to his job at the Oakland facility on weekends, Dustin said. Later, Dustin enrolled in an environmental services program at a local community college.

“My dad pushed me to apply for jobs with the city, and I was passed over several times,” Dustin said.

But family persistence eventually paid off. Dustin worked his way up through the ranks to become lead operator at the city’s North Topeka facility. He also is active in KWEA, serving as KWEA conference coordinator and proctoring operator certification exams.

From right, Sylvan, joined his son, Dustin, and daughter, Darcy, at Dustin’s wedding in July 2016. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

From right, Sylvan, joined his son, Dustin, and daughter, Darcy, at Dustin’s wedding in July 2016. Photo courtesy of the Coles family.

Both father and son have hopes of mobilizing a national certification program for treatment plant operators, using KWEA’s program as a model. “I think it’s important to instill a sense of ownership in our members so they see this profession as a true career, a life choice worth investing in,” Sylvan said. “An operator certification program is one way to do that.”

With nearly 60 years of wastewater experience between them and countless hours devoted to KWEA administration, the family’s commitment to wastewater runs deep.

— Mary Bufe, WEF Highlights

WEF Highlights Presents My Water Legacy Families

The Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) is bringing attention to the value of membership and tradition of working in the water sector.

The #MyWaterLegacy social media campaign and WEF Highlights articles feature the accomplishments and contributions of members who have passed down the tradition of actively participating in WEF and working in the water sector. The WEF Legacy Family will appear in an ongoing WEF Highlights series. Read the series by searching for the keyword MyWaterLegacy.

Do you know of a family with multiple generations of WEF members and water sector professionals? Contact Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights editor, at jfulcher@wef.org.

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