Growing up in the west Georgia town of Franklin, Lori Barrett learned early how to tend to a garden and work in the fields.
She remembers as a child rising before sunup to pick the vegetables and feed the animals on the family’s property.
Unlike many girls she knew, Barrett didn’t mind breaking fingernails or getting her clothes dirty. As long as she was outside, she was happy.
Now in her early 40s, Barrett’s love for the outdoors has brought her to Dawson County, where she works as an operator for the county.
And that’s not an operator who sits behind a desk and answers the phone. “I could never work in an office,” she said.
Barrett operates heavy equipment for the public works department, the first woman to hold that position in the county’s history.
Public Works Director David Headley said raising the bar in any department is a huge undertaking and one that begins with the leadership’s willingness to step away from the norm.
“She’s broke through the barriers,” said Headley, adding that Barrett is as good if not better at her job than some of her male counterparts. “She’s tough.”
Tough may not even be the best description of Barrett, whose first job out of high school was with a fencing business, digging posts and hanging barbed wire.
“It was hard work,” she said.
But hard, physical labor that kept her outside, like each job she’s had since.
Before joining the local staff in March, she also worked in public works for the city of Atlanta and with smaller maintenance and equipment operations.
“When I got the job here, it was kind of on a dare,” she said. “I told Eddie Savage all the things I could do, run a Bobcat, grader, etc., and I don’t think he believed me.”
Savage, operations manager, was surprised a few days later when Barrett successfully proved her abilities with an equipment operating test.
“She can do it all,” Savage said. “And as far as running equipment goes, she’s better than all of us.”
But it’s not just her abilities that distinguish Barrett from her male counterparts. It’s a winning attitude and an ability to always look forward.
“Not only can she operate about any piece of equipment you put her on, she will climb right in the trenches next to you, urging you to keep up,” Headley said.
Eight months into her current job, Barrett is viewed as just one of the guys.
“They don’t treat me any different,” she said.
Co-worker Tyler Jones joked the only difference between Barrett and the men in the department is that she has to put steps on the equipment to reach the peddles.
“We’ve got to put pillows behind her back, because she’s so small,” he said.
Barrett laughs and lightly punches her buddy in the arm.
“They know I know what I’m doing,” Barrett said.
They also know she loves what she does and where she is.
“Dawson County has been real good to me, and that small town feel — it’s kind of like home,” she said.
Barrett plans to buy some land in Dawson County, where she hopes someday to retire.
Until then, she’ll be grading pavement, cutting fallen trees with a chainsaw, putting up road signs, moving dirt with two-ton tractors and whatever else comes her way. And all with a smile on her face.
“She has broken the mold and we are privileged to have her, as we are our entire staff,” Headley said.
To which Barrett responds, with a smile, of course: “I just love it here. I’ve found where I belong.”