Standing in an office room filled with his own photos, awards and race medals, Milt Link teared up as he searched for the words to describe his emotion. “This day is going to be tough,” he said, voice breaking as he talked about leaving behind a career that has spanned half a century.

Milt Link, now 71 years old, has spent 51 of those years in the soil and water conservation industry, the past 20 of which have been for the Delaware Soil and Conservation District as a drainage maintenance coordinator and urban resource conservationist. But after doing some soul searching, and also dealing with the loss and near-loss of people close to him, Link decided it was time to see what else life had in store for him.

“I have my health today, but tomorrow I might not have it,” Link said as he described what led to his decision to call it quits.

With the decision made, Link announced his intentions to retire at the end of March to his colleagues in November of last year. There was just one more person he needed to inform.

“I went home that day and my wife, Cheryl, asked me what happened at work that day,” Link recalled. “I told her I announced my retirement.”

Although understandably surprised, Link insisted his wife was completely supportive of his decision.

Link’s time with Delaware SWCD has been full of growth. He began with 28 drainage projects and will end his career with that number approaching 500. But there is one in particular that stands out, a project with the Columbus Upground Reservoir in northwest Delaware County, that he prefers to hang his hat on.

“We had a meeting with the City of Columbus and their engineering firm. Fifteen hundred acres of drainage went right through where they were going to build the reservoir. Something needed to happen,” he said. “We worked with them on the design, worked with them to get it set up … when we were done, we had a close relationship. That, to me, was pretty awesome. It was a partnership we formed with them.”

Like his work on the reservoir, relationships have been everything for Link throughout his career. Whether it was in the SWCD office or at the Delaware County Engineer’s Office, where he spent a good amount of his time, he is thankful for the people he has encountered and the friendships he has formed. His colleagues echo that sentiment.

“I worked here eight years when Milt came to the county. I had been here long enough I thought I knew what I was doing,” said Scott Stephens, district administrator for the SWCD. “Working with him for 20 years, it’s been a great relationship and vital to getting me where I am today.”

While Link’s departure will certainly leave a void, it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Link that he has been fully engaged in preparing his successor to assume the role.

“It would be easy that late in your career to just not want any part of that, but that’s just not him,” Stephens said. “I know he gets up every morning and says, ‘How can I make what we do, and the staff, better?’”

Matt Lanum, who began as an intern, will be tasked with replacing Link. While he is excited about the opportunity, he is well aware of the standard that has been set by his predecessor.

“I can’t stress enough the amount of knowledge Milt has,” Lanum said. “Those are big shoes to fill. Milt has meant a lot to me through the years. Not just as a boss, but as a good friend. I have a great appreciation for him.”

Of course, there is the inevitable question — what’s next? — that comes with every retirement. For Link, a man who has hiked the Grand Canyon seven times and completed two full marathons, the answer undoubtedly lies in something outdoors.

He plans to continue hiking with his group of friends and will spend the upcoming week down in Florida, playing as many rounds of golf as he can get in. He also has plans to buy a boat, whenever he finds the right one.

Having spent 23 years in the Ohio Guard, Link is also very active with the VFW and American Legion and rarely misses an opportunity to serve on the Honor Guard for local veterans.

Whatever he might do, which he admits could include some part-time work at some point, Link isn’t too wrapped up in figuring it out.

“I need to stay active … there are people more concerned about it than I am,” he said.

Most importantly, Link is at peace with the decision and is leaving on the best of terms.

“I like the challenge, I like the individuals I’ve been working with,” he said. “I can’t say enough nice things about the county engineer’s office … I think I can still do the job. But after 50 years, I just want to do something else.”

Milt Link shows off his race medals at his retirement party. Link is calling it a career after 50 years in the soil and water industry. Link shows off his race medals at his retirement party. Link is calling it a career after 50 years in the soil and water industry. Dillon Davis | The Gazette

By Dillon Davis

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Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @ddavis_Gazette.