In the summer of 1985, Steve Saunders submitted his application for an internship with the Village of Winnetka. Almost four decades later, the Glencoe native can’t believe what followed that decision.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, and two summers interning with Winnetka, Saunders officially accepted a full-time engineering position with the Village in 1987.
The New Trier High School alumnus later earned a promotion to Director of Public Works/Village Engineer in 1998. By the end of 2020, Saunders retired, marking the conclusion of his 35 years of public service to the community and a career that became a far cry from what he once imagined.
“I had no idea it would turn into (35 years with Winnetka),” Saunders told The Record. “When I took the internship, I kind of had in my mind that I was going to go in the private sector and the consulting side of things so I wanted to get some feel of municipal experience just so I knew what the field of engineering was like. But I had no idea this would be the path.”
Saunders “set a standard for the way people expect service in the community” during his time with Winnetka, Village President Chris Rintz said during a Village Council meeting highlighting his accomplishments.
“Steve gave a lifetime of service to our village and we’re just so grateful,” Rintz added.
In addition to leading the public works department for more than 20 years, Saunders helped guide several key projects throughout the village.
Saunders played a major role in Winnetka’s stormwater management efforts, including creating the village’s stormwater management master plan. He also led the design and construction of the downtown streetscape work, played a part in village hall renovations, led the development of the public works administrative building and completed countless other projects.
In 2012, the Winnetka-Northfield Chamber of Commerce named Saunders the Village Employee of the Year for “demonstrating professionalism, competence and expertise and devoting his entire career to the Village.”
“You have made an impact; your heart and soul is in this town,” Village Trustee Rob Dearborn told Saunders. “I look around this village and Steve Saunders’ name is all over roads and buildings and so forth and I admire that.”
Although Saunders’ time with Winnetka far exceeded his expectations, it would have likely never happened without his dad first serving the community.
His father started in 1954 as a police dispatcher for Winnetka, beginning more than seven decades of the Saunders family’s public service to the community.
Saunders said he felt a sense of gratitude toward the village for taking a chance on his father, a Korean War veteran, former marine and single-leg amputee.
That sense of appreciation still holds strong years later.
“I always felt a special place in my heart for Winnetka,” he said. “The community itself is unique and special in a lot of ways. The problems that Winnetka faces aren’t particularly unique from what a lot of municipalities face but it’s a really well-resourced community with dedicated elected leaders and they have the ability to actually solve a lot of the problems.”
Saunders said much of the public-service work throughout his career is memorable but two projects that are “really emblematic of the spirit of Winnetka” are etched into his memory.
The first project is the relocation of the historic Schmidt-Burnham Log House in the early 2000s and the second is the rehabilitation of Winnetka’s war memorial on Village Green.
Saunders, 55, plans to finish his master’s degree in chaplaincy ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield. He’s been taking courses since the fall of 2014 and is now hopeful he’ll be able to accelerate finishing up his degree.
“Who knows where the lord is going to take that, but my thought is either workplace chaplaincy or law enforcement first-responder chaplaincy,” he said.
Now a resident of Gurnee, Saunders has been married to his wife Kirsten for 26 years. Their daughter is in her first year of graduate school at the University of Vermont and their son is currently in the U.S. Navy.
Saunders enjoys almost all outdoor-related activities, particularly hiking and backpacking. He also is excited to have more time to continue his passion for photography during his newly found free time. If all goes as planned, pandemic allowing, Saunders is hoping to hike the 220-mile John Muir Trail later this year.
Retirement is still fresh for Saunders so he hasn’t had a chance to fully put his 35 years with the village into perspective yet — but he knows a feeling of appreciation will always be there.
“There’s just an immense sense of gratitude and thankfulness to be able to work with and for so many wonderful people,” Saunders said. “And it’s just a level of appreciation that I have for the village that sometimes it can produce challenging situations but by and large is just an amazing community of people that love to live here. It means a lot to people.
“So for me to have a chance to work in that environment and contribute in some way, I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.