Looking for trouble | July 25, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

Cover Story - July 25, 2018

Looking for trouble

Antonio Corgas has kept Woodside running smoothly for 30 years

by Barbara Wood

Antonio Corgas' job is looking for trouble — and he's very, very good at it.

So good in fact, that Corgas often finds trouble — and makes it disappear — before the residents of Woodside, where he's long been the head of maintenance for the town, even know it's there.

Most days, Corgas, 61, can be seen cruising Woodside's 14 square miles in one of the town's white pickup trucks, looking for potholes, fallen tree branches, plugged-up drainage pipes, vandalized road signs, gopher holes in a soccer field or anything else that's out of place in the town where he's worked for three decades.

Then he fixes it.

"When government works best, you have no idea it's there," says Woodside Mayor Chris Shaw. "I can't think of a better example than Antonio and his maintenance staff."

So, while Woodside's miles of narrow winding roads, ample tree cover, extensive trail network, areas prone to landslides and several creeks make the town especially vulnerable to problems in need of attention, "we have a remarkably reliable town," Shaw says, mostly because Corgas and his crew fix most problems before they're noticed.

"He sees things, anticipates things," Shaw says. "He's so good at what he does that you don't know he's doing his job."

Three decades in Woodside

Come August, however, residents of Woodside may notice some subtle differences in the town, starting with the absence of Corgas' smiling face peering from the window of that town truck. He's retiring after 30 years of working in Woodside, the first three and a half for the Woodside Elementary School District.

"This is a great town," says Corgas. "I feel this is my home," he adds, even though he's lived in Pacifica with his wife Lucy for several decades. "They treat me good," he says of the town staff and the residents of Woodside, many of whom he considers friends.

How Corgas ended up in Woodside is its own story, one starting in the southwestern African country of Angola, where he was born.

Corgas says his parents moved from Portugal to a large farm about 40 miles from Lobito, Angola. They grew palm trees for palm oil, and as many as 150 tons a year of pinto beans, white beans and bananas for export to Europe. They had as many as 1,200 cattle and a few horses, he says.

Antonio grew up speaking an African dialect of Portuguese, attending public schools in a nearby city until he was in fourth grade, when he left home to attend a Marist Brothers boarding school about 250 miles away.

Civil war

Then in 1974, as 17-year-old Corgas was finishing high school, a civil war broke out. Corgas, his younger sister and his mother were forced to flee Angola to Portugal, along with thousands of others. His father remained behind. "He stayed to keep up the farm," Corgas says.

"We got in a big ship. We were like cattle there" among about 2,000 people, he recalls. They were escorted by the military because the warring factions opposed their departure, but about 90 percent of white people living in Angola left the country, he says.

"We arrived (in Portugal) without a penny," he says. The government handed the family the equivalent of about $100, and his grandmother helped them resettle.

"They called us retornados," or returnees, he says.

In 1982, a few months before Corgas was scheduled to rejoin his father in Angola, the elder Corgas was killed by a mortar lobbed at his truck. Friends sent the body to Portugal, Corgas says, and he canceled his plans to return to his country of birth.

After finishing high school in Portugal, Corgas immediately started a construction job to help support his mother and younger sister.

Later, after a stint as a hotel waiter, he went to work as a steward for Sitmar Cruises. On a cruise, he met his wife, Lucy, an American who was there as a youth activities coordinator. After the two ended up working on different ships, she "disembarked and she told me to disembark, too," Corgas says.

He did, the two soon married and he became an American citizen. They have three children who are now 29, 28 and 25.

Corgas was working for a catering company in his wife's hometown of San Francisco — with clients including Gordon Getty, Danielle Steele and Robin Williams — when he was offered a job as a night custodian by his wife's cousin Bruce Thompson, then superintendent of Woodside Elementary School District.

Corgas worked at Woodside Elementary until, after the third time he applied, he was hired by the town of Woodside.

Corgas said he told them: "If you hire me, you'll have a hard time getting rid of me."

'Most Valuable Player'

In 2017, the town recognized Corgas with a commendation honoring his 25 years there, which also include eight years jointly supervising maintenance for both the town and the school district.

"Antonio leads the leanest and meanest three-man public works crew in all of California, if not the United States," the commendation says. "Antonio has taken countless calls made on dark and stormy nights to respond to downed trees, mud slides, and debris flows," and "always attacks every problem or task with his 'get it done yesterday' attitude."

"Antonio has been referred to by more than one resident ... as Woodside's 'Most Valuable Player,'" the commendation says.

Town Manager Kevin Bryant says Corgas "has a pride of ownership about the town," and "takes it as a personal affront if something isn't addressed right away."

"He really cares about it," Bryant says. "I've never met anyone like him, (and) I doubt I ever really will again."

Bryant says that while the town has increased its maintenance crew from three to four members in anticipation of Corgas' retirement, he believes Ignacio Hernandez will do a great job as Corgas' replacement because he was trained by Corgas and has worked with him for eight years.

"He leads his crew by example," Bryant says of Corgas. "He never asked any of his crew to do anything he wouldn't do himself."

"He knows every square inch of the town, probably because he's been here so long," Bryant added.

Sean Rose, who became town engineer in April 2016, says he has relied on Corgas to help him get to know the town and its history, and also consults him about capital projects for the town.

"I'm going to be very sorry to see him go," Rose says. "He's one of the best employees I've ever had the opportunity to manage."

"He will be missed around here for sure."

Back to his roots

Corgas and his wife Lucy, who retired as a physical education teacher in May, have plans, however.

They will first travel to Venice, then head south to Sicily, where Lucy's family hails from, before traveling to Portugal. Corgas' mother lives there on a farm about 25 miles from the border with Spain, near a community called Castelo Branco.

"She's 85 years old and I need to take care of her," Corgas says, explaining that since he left home at the age of 19 he hasn't spent enough time with his mother.

Not that she can't take care of herself. "She's amazing, that little lady," Corgas says. "She's 85. She's still trying to climb trees." She does much of her own yard work and makes her own wine, he says.

"I'm going to be a part-time farmer, picking up oranges and stuff" for her, he says.

While in Portugal, Antonio and Lucy will also spend some time relaxing in Algarve, where they have a condo near the beach. "It's really pretty," Corgas says.

They'll return to Pacifica in late November, he says, but he plans to leave again in the spring and return to the place of his birth, Angola, to see what has become of his family's farm.

Competitive athlete

Taking care of Woodside and making friends isn't the only thing Corgas excels at. He's been a top-level competitive athlete much of his life, playing soccer, running and biking.

In Woodside, Corgas won the town's May Day Fun Run three years in a row, but said he stopped competing because he thought it wasn't fair to the other runners, as he was being sponsored by Ralph Lauren's RLX Polo brand.

Repeated injuries ended his competitive running, but recently Corgas has taken up bicycle racing.

Woodside resident Steve Lubin, himself an avid biker, says he's "met him several times out on the road." Recently, while climbing up steep Alpine Road, "this guy came sprinting up the road and passed me like I was standing still," Lubin says. It was Corgas.

He also saw Corgas riding with the "very competitive" Pen Velo riders, he says, "well ahead of the main group."

Corgas says that once he returns from his planned trips, he'll probably look for a part-time "hobby job."

"I have too much energy" not to work, he says.

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