Bootstrap, learn-on-the-job stories like Ron Anderson's used to be more common.

Approached by friends about his interest in engineering, then-18-year-old Anderson joined a fledgling St. Paul company that wanted to connect downtown to a new, shared network of heating and cooling.

Over the decades, the Patrick Henry High School graduate rose from general helper to Plant Manager for District Energy St. Paul. Eye On St. Paul recently met with Anderson at District Energy near the Science Museum of Minnesota to learn more about his work helping downtown warm up and keep cool.

This interview was edited for length.

Q: How long have you been with District Energy?

A: 40 years, this July.

Q: How did you get started?

A: Well, in north Minneapolis, where I grew up, a friend who I went to high school with, Dave Berger — and his father, Bill Berger — ran courses for operating and stationary engineering. He wondered if I'd be interested in getting a job in the boiler industry. Bill was showing me some areas where power plants are. And he said, "There's going to be an opening here," at what was called District Heating Development Company. I was able to interview. They were looking for people to start up the plant.

Q: Did you have an engineering background?

A: No. I was right out of high school. Everything was new. I was introduced to some of the other people who were here, and are still here with us today. John Skeie [relief lead engineer], Joe Lee [foreman] and Jeff Amacher [relief lead engineer]. Those guys are the people who really were helping me to understand a lot about operations and just learning about mechanical stuff.

Q: You learned on the job?

A: Pretty much, yes.

Q: What was it that interested you?

A: Oh, just the whole idea [of] being involved with a company starting up. And people were encouraging, saying, "This is a great career opportunity for you." When I first started, I was only a general helper. So I was just cleaning stuff, learning all the different things about the plant. And even that was overwhelming in a way.

I was just about to turn 19. We didn't know the future of this company. Back then, we were burning coal. We were trying to make it affordable for business owners in downtown St. Paul. I have to give a shout out to [former mayor] George Latimer, because he was very instrumental in getting things off the ground.

Q: Why did people think this would be a great place for you to work?

A: I think [my] ability to interact with people, being inquisitive, of trying to learn more about what we do here and trying to share that knowledge.

Q: Give me a thumbnail sketch of your job.

A: Making sure the equipment is available to supply hot water heating and cooling to our customers in downtown St. Paul.

Q: How many customers in downtown do you have?

A: More heating customers than cooling. Off the top of my head, at least 200.

Q: You no longer burn coal?

A: No. We use wood [50% of all fuel comes from biomass, diseased trees that were cut down or blown over], natural gas and fuel oil.

Q: You have a system of piping underground connecting all these buildings to one another?

A: Yes.

Q: Can I set my own thermostat?

A: Each individual building can. We supply the hot water and when it gets to their building, they can do whatever they want with it.

Q: What do you like about this job?

A: The people. The people are good people. I can be who I am. I can voice opinions. The people who are very instrumental for me to learn from, they're different engineers with different insights on different systems. There's something that happens here that's interesting, every day.

Q: After 40 years, you're still learning new things?

A: Oh, yeah.

Q: What is the most recent thing that you've learned?

A: Water chemistry. Learning about the phosphates that we use for our boilers' water system. There are different ratios. You want to make sure the pH is at a certain level to prevent corrosion inside the boiler tubes.

We're learning more technology on heat pumps and incorporating that into our system as well. It's ongoing. It's my role to learn as much as I can so the people that I manage have enough data.

Q: What do the engineers need to get from you?

A: Data. Lots of data. Lots of experience that comes from everyday operations.

Q: What has been the most challenging thing to happen?

A: COVID. Trying to manage people in different locations to operate the equipment and [not knowing] what the outcome was going to be. We had individuals who got seriously sick. It was a really emotional time.

Q: What's been the most satisfying thing?

A: COVID, because we made it through [laughs]. It was so nice to see everybody come together — to see what we do here and how important it is.

Q: How long have you been plant manager?

A: Since 2016.

Q: How much longer will you go?

A: I don't know. I'll see how things work financially or until I say, "Hey, this is it." For right now, I'm still enjoying what I do.