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Towering over Juneau, crane operator returns home to visit dad

Posted: November 25, 2013 - 1:02am
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Tower crane operator Mike Devon surveys downtown Juneau from the counter-jib ten-floors above where the State Libraries, Archives and Museum project is currently under construction. Devon, born and raised in Juneau, has been working on cranes in the Pacific Northwest and jumped at the chance to work in his hometown.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Tower crane operator Mike Devon surveys downtown Juneau from the counter-jib ten-floors above where the State Libraries, Archives and Museum project is currently under construction. Devon, born and raised in Juneau, has been working on cranes in the Pacific Northwest and jumped at the chance to work in his hometown.

Mike Devon probably has one of the best views in town.

From atop a 130 foot tall tower crane in downtown Juneau, he gets a clear shot down the Gastineau Channel, and sometimes he can see all the way north of Taku Harbor.

“It’s pristine,” he said. “When Juneau is sunshine-y, I don’t think there’s any place like it.”

The 59-year-old, born and raised in Douglas, didn’t return to his hometown to be the SLAM project crane operator just for the snowcapped mountaintop views, though. It was for his father, James Louis Devon, who lives in the Juneau Pioneer Home and just turned 90 in September.

“He’s a wonderful man and a well-respected member of the community,” Devon said. “Basically, I feel privileged and honored that he is my father.”

The two share dinner about twice a week, and they like to go on drives. Occasionally, the father and son will ride the elevator in the Prospector Hotel up to the top floor to get a good view of Devon’s job site in the Willoughby District.

“I show him the pictures that I take from the crane, he thinks it’s pretty amazing,” Devon said.

The elder Devon is a former accountant for the Federal Highway Administration. He did carpentry on the side.

“He was self taught, and pretty well accomplished,” Devon said.

Devon also worked in carpentry, on the Alaska pipeline as a security guard and in the military before he saw “the writing on the wall” and became a crane operator. Long before “working his way to the top,” as he put it with a wink and a nod, Devon operated his first crane in Juneau in the early ‘80s. He hopped into a ground level mobile crane at a small commercial building off Industrial Boulevard when his coworkers weren’t paying attention.

“They were busy having coffee, and I thought I’d give it a whirl,” Devon said mischievously.

That instance gave rise to his career as an operating engineer and 19-plus years working on cranes. The bulk of his work has been through Mowat Construction, based in Lynwood, Wash., and through the Washington and Alaska chapters of the International Union of Operating Engineers, a union for heavy equipment operators. He’s worked on all sorts of projects across the Pacific Northwest.

The tallest crane he’s ever operated was 550 feet tall. That was for a project in Bellevue, Wash., where four tower cranes were going at once to build the Bravern, a mixed-use commercial and residential development.

That’s massive compared to the crane he’s working on now for the SLAM (Alaska State, Library, Archive and Museum) project on Willoughby Avenue. The SLAM project is the construction of a new facility that will house those three divisions under one roof in the same location as the Alaska State Museum building. The new facility will double the museum exhibition space and triple the collection storage of the state’s current facility, and will have 118,000 square feet of new construction.

Since the crane was raised in March, Devon spends his days working in the cab of the 316 Liebherr crane, which has a 230 foot long jib (the arm that sticks out the front) and an 80 foot counterjib (the shorter arm in the back, which is offset by about 50,000 pounds of counterweight). It’s a smaller machine than what he’s used to.

“I call it a flagpole because it does have a lot of bounce in it, in the jib,” he said.

His commute to work every day consists of scaling a steel ladder up the crane’s mast — a cage is around the ladder for safety, and there’s a landing every 20 feet. Once up in the cab, he communicates with the ground crew using hand signals and two-way radio as they land the load, and he moves it. The crane has the capacity to lift 26,000 pounds at once, although the average load is usually somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 pounds, he said.

Of all the questions Devon fields most about the project, though, the most common one asked is, “Where do you go to the bathroom?” The answer, he confirmed, is in a water bottle.

“It’s kind of the norm,” he said.

Heights don’t bother him. On breaks, he enjoys stretching his legs on the counterjib, which is six feet wide, with hand rails on both sides and a metal grate.

“Just like walking down the sidewalk,” he said, adding, “Well, for me it is.”

The few visitors he’s had up at the top, including his police captain nephew, haven’t been so fearless.

“I watched him get off the ladder and go to his hands and knees to crawl over to where he could stand up,” Devon said, chuckling. “He was a little nervous.”

North Bend, Wash., is Devon’s home now. His wife, two kids and 7-year-old grandson all live there. But he is planning on staying in Juneau for the job until the crane comes down near the projected SLAM completion date of April 2016.

“It’s kind of bittersweet in that my immediate family is still in Washington, but I am able to spend time with my dad,” he said.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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