So many words come to mind if asked to describe Carl Essex: Unique. Brilliant. Generous. Loyal. Opinionated. Dedicated. Stubborn. Driven.
But now that Essex is gone — he died Monday at age 65 after a long, hard-fought battle with cancer — one word especially stands out:
“I don’t know if anybody can ever replace Carl,” said Huron County Engineer Joe Kovach. Essex worked as his administrative assistant, and before that, for county engineers Larry McGlinchy and Larry Heit. “He will be sadly missed. He was just an amazing guy. If you had five Carls, you could replace 30 people”
But no one will replace Essex.
“He was my true friend and my right-hand guy at the highway department,” he said. “I would never have survived my first year (as engineer) without him”
In many ways, Essex was the highway department.
“When I came on board, he was the administrator of office and that was a relief to me,” said Kovach. “Carl kind of took charge and organized everything. He did it for me, and Larry Heit and (Larry) McGlinchy.
“Whatever needed to be done, Carl was there. He was full-throttle, all the time, 24/7. In bad weather, he’d be out snowplowing. He did the administration, bought the equipment, supervised stuff ... he was just an amazing guy. He was well-read, knew something about everything and was in tune with everything.
“He truly loved Huron County and the highway department”
Norwalk attorney and longtime Huron County Democratic stalwart Harold Freeman knew Essex for years.
“Carl was a unique individual” said Freeman. “I don’t know anyone else who believed more strongly in public service than him. Nothing was about personal gain, but what was best for the county, city, village, township — that was what he worked for.
“It will take a while for people to realize all he did. But Carl will be deeply missed” Essex enjoyed debating and “had opinions on everything, but his opinions were backed up with fact and knowledge,” said Kovach. “He was the kind of guy you love to hate — you either loved him or you hated him. If he was on your side, he’d battle like heck for you. And if he wasn’t, he’d battle like heck just to prove his point ...
“Many times Carl would say he was practicing law without license. We used to kid him that he created problems that he knew how to solve”
David Myers, who worked in the highway department with Essex for 25 years, saw both sides of Essex. He said the two had their share of disagreements over the years, but in the end each came to respect each other.
“Carl will be sadly missed” said Myers. “He did a lot for a lot of people. He could be your worst enemy and he could be your best friend, and when he was your best friend, he definitely was your best friend”
“He’d do anything for anybody,” echoed Freeman. “If you had a problem, he’d help, from pulling someone from a snow bank to washing windows at the courthouse. He was a real resource for the county”
Essex’s public service began as administrator for the village of Grafton, and includes stints as Willard parks director, Huron County director of regional planning, Bellevue safety service director (where, Freeman noted, Essex hired future county sheriff and commissioner Tom Dunlap as police officer) and North Fairfield village administrator (where Essex donated his salary back to the village each month) before settling in at the highway department.
Freeman said Essex was “one of the brightest folks you’d ever meet” and a member of Mensa, but he lived for his family.“Although he had no kids of his own, he had stepchildren (Betsy and Brett) that he doted on. He thought they were the most important things in the world — those children ... and his wife Sue”
Essex also had his political side. His mother Dorothy was longtime Republican recorder, but Essex was a Democrat — at times. In truth, he was a free spirit.
“I always wondered what he was, a Democrat or a Republican, but Carl was in-between,” said Kovach. “He’d go to both parties’ events and gave money to both sides. ... The Republicans thought he was a spy for the Democrats and the Democrats thought he was a spy for the Republicans”
He said Essex did all he could not to let on he was ill.
“He’d go to board meetings while he was going through chemo ... but you’d never know it. Until the end, nobody even knew he was sick.”
A recurrence of cancer, a fall and a stroke, all in rapid succession, finally claimed Essex.
Kovach said he will miss Essex in so many ways, and of course, at the highway department. “When I got here, I never planned on serving three terms. That’s all due to Carl. Now I’m looking at fourth ... I’m not sure if I want to go for a fourth term without Carl”
Who will Kovach miss more, Essex the administrative assistant, or Essex the person?
“It’s about equal, but it’s the super person that Carl was that made him a super administrator”
Highway department workers served as pallbearers at Essex’s service Saturday. “That says it all,” said Kovach.
“He treated me like a brother, a son, like a family member; and that’s what I’m going to miss most.
“And the county’s going to miss him, too”
Said Freeman: “He’s irreplaceable”