As Grays Harbor Facilities Director, Dennis Selberg knows the ins and outs of the historic Grays Harbor County Courthouse, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. He could probably tell you where every door leads and what happens when you push just about any button or switch in the building.
County Utilities Director Kevin Varness calls him the “caretaker of the courthouse” and County Commissioner Terry Willis says that Selberg’s knowledge and history behind the courthouse and other county buildings is second to none.
After 23 years in the facilities division, Selberg is retiring. Prior to working at the county, he worked for the Aberdeen School District as a custodian and before that for the Farmer’s Home Administration. Altogether, the 63-year-old has just over 30 years of government experience, making him eligible for retirement.
“I will miss taking people and classes on tours of our beautifully restored courthouse and telling them a little bit of our history,” Selberg said.
Commissioner Willis said she’s enjoyed leading public tours with Selberg and hopes he’ll still give tours, even in retirement.
“That’s something I hope to do, as well,” Selberg said.
Where did your interest in the courthouse come from?
In the 1999 earthquake, we started having people bring us plaques and pictures. You’d see pictures of what it used to look like. I remember a woman came in and brought a photo of a bunch of people surrounding a stained-glass window looking down from up in the clock tower. Well, we had boards covering this window we didn’t know about and we uncovered the boards and sure enough, there was the window. Then we installed a railing around the window, like what was in the photo. And then this other lady brought me a picture of in front of the courthouse and saw this old fountain. We were able to research it and found a fountain almost exactly like the old one. I started looking back at the history of the courthouse, trying to figure out, where did all of the stone come from? There’s two million pounds of sand stone that came from Tenino and it cost $193,000 to build it, with the furniture. And then I started talking to historian Pat Clemons, who was a wealth of information, and read all the books I could on the history of the courthouse and the way Grays Harbor County started. The battle for the county seat is really fascinating and people love it and want to know where the county came from.
When do you give tours at the courthouse?
During the Festival of Lights every December and Montesano also has a car show in the summer, which used to be the Festival of People. The car show draws a huge crowd. The Festival of Lights is amazing because the choir comes into the courthouse and sings.
Do you think tours will continue amid the need for courthouse security following the March 9 attacks?
I think so because we made it for where we can make people come in through the front door and turn the alarms off. I’m not too sure we’ll be able to get into the courtrooms, because the judges’ areas will all be locked up. But I think I’ll still be able to take everyone to the very top of the courthouse, where the clock tower is. The clock that’s up there and all of the glass up there is really fascinating.
What is favorite thing about the courthouse?
The old clock just keeps going forever. It really is my favorite thing. We hardly work on it and the pieces we have had to work on is just a piece that stops the weight from having to drop down. During the earthquake, we had the clock completely taken out and cleaned and you can adjust the minutes and seconds, but you don’t have to do many changes. It keeps great time.
How concerned were you following the 1999 earthquake that damaged the courthouse?
That earthquake did $9.7 million in damage, which I saw firsthand. I was on vacation and just going across the border into Canada and they called me and said we just had an earthquake and told me the courthouse had been damaged. I hardly believed it until I saw it. The county almost didn’t restore it. We were having problems with the insurance company and didn’t know where we’d get the money to save it. I’m glad we stood our ground. We formed a committee and the committee approved everything to get the best engineers and architects to preserve the historic integrity of the courthouse.
Why do you have the nickname the “Caretaker of the Courthouse?”
I’ve been here to make sure the historic integrity of the courthouse is not forgotten. Just the other day, the new security folks showed me where they wanted to put the cameras, which would have damaged the detail work inside the courthouse. I told them that wouldn’t work. I showed them where they could put the cameras, instead. And I’ll be back on this issue, even in retirement. I’m not going to let them drill all over this place. It took two years of fighting to get the courthouse where it is now, to preserve the historic integrity and do everything right. Even the sprinklers are hidden just right, where you can hardly notice them. You’ve got to be able to do the same thing with cameras.
What maintenance problems have you identified that have been put off for years and years and still need to be addressed?
We finally got a new HVAC system in the jail and new pipes and there’s a newer roof on the Administration Building, but the Pearsall Building in Aberdeen still needs a lot of work done on it. They need a whole new HVAC system there. It’s 1980s technology. We also need a new system in the Administration Building. Right now, we really have to hunt around for parts because they simply don’t make them anymore and no one wants to sell us mercury switches anymore to shut off the system. I’m lucky I found two because after that I don’t know what will happen. You know, when we had the money, the county used it for something else. Maintenance always took a backseat. Right now, we’re even having a problem with leaks at the courthouse, which could cost in excess of $100,000. We just got an estimate. Hopefully, the insurance will help us cover some of it. And, if you don’t repair it, the building will get damaged forever. We need to stop the leak and hopefully it will get plugged up soon.
As retirement comes, do you have any parting thoughts?
I’m down to seven people when I leave out of 13 we did have for custodial and maintenance. That means we’re down to three maintenance guys to cover from here to Pacific Beach to the fairgrounds and the ORV Park. My main concern is the people. I don’t want to see them laying off any people. We’ve saved this county so much money by doing work ourselves. We built a stage. We did all the electrical for all of the barns, the new riding stable, the concessions underneath the new grandstand at the race track and the pits. My guys are amazing. I’d like to thank the commissioners and past commissioners for the privilege of working for Grays Harbor County, especially Bill Vogler, who suggested that I put in an application. I would like to acknowledge maintenance staff Randy Sheppard, Bob Hammer and Rick Harper. Since 1999, we have endured two earthquakes, numerous ice and wind storms and a hurricane and through it all, we have been able to do repairs and keep the county offices open. You may think of these guys as just three employees, but together they do the work of actually six to eight skilled county employees that have saved this county hundreds of thousands of dollars doing work that other counties contract out. Thanks to them for making me look so good. I would also like to thank Mike Daniels, Paul Easter and Kevin Varness for their guidance and their ability to find work and funds to save facility services jobs.