It will take a lot to ably succeed George Webb as Palm Beach County engineer.
Webb served in that capacity for 26 years, weighing in on where roads — and thus development — can be placed or expanded.
Want to know what it feels like on the underside of a lawn mower? Offering up roadway guidance as environmentalists and developers duke it out over some controversial project must come close at times.
But if any man can shoulder the weight of that engineer’s office, it’s Webb’s successor, David Ricks.
Shouldering weight is something of a specialty for Ricks. He is a legend in power lifting circles, an eight-time national champion who has numerous world records on his resume.
As the development versus preservation debate rages in Palm Beach County, Ricks will need all of that strength and then some.
Chris Meyers of Boynton Beach was at dinner with his parents four months ago when his cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number and let it ring.
Only it wouldn’t stop ringing. Meyers, who owns weight lifting facilities in Boynton Beach, Fort Lauderdale and New York, decided to see who was calling.
He tapped into his voice mail. One of the messages was from someone at his Boynton facility.
“Hey man, I think David Ricks is here,” Meyers recalled hearing.
“People were sending me pics,” Meyers said. “‘That’s David Ricks.’”
Meyers said he soon learned that what couldn’t be, in fact, was: David Ricks was at his gym.
In the relatively small world of drug-tested power lifting, having Ricks in your facility is akin to having Steph Curry draining threes in your gym or Serena Williams whacking tennis balls on your court.
“In the International Powerlifting Federation, he’s the godfather is who he is,” Meyers said. “He beats people half his age. He beats people who are 25.”
Palm Beach County, meet your new county engineer: David L. Ricks, a man so strong he could squat a barbell with Ndamukong Suh on one end while Laremy Tunsil clung to the other.
Even that wouldn’t require all of Ricks’ strength. Suh, the Miami Dolphins’ terrifying defensive tackle, weighs 305 pounds. Tunsil, the team’s stout left tackle, checks in at 315.
Ricks’ best squat in competition is 716 pounds, a world record he shattered in March at an event in Ohio. The previous record? That was a 683-pound squat set by…yep, Ricks.
He has bench pressed 452 pounds. His best dead lift — pulling weight from the floor to your thighs and setting it back down again — is 672 pounds. Both are masters world records.
And there is this: David Ricks is 58 years old. He weighs 210 pounds.
It wasn’t Ricks’ weight lifting prowess that got him the job as county engineer. For that, his resume did the heavy lifting. It’s stacked like a Ricks barbell: educated at the U.S. Naval Academy, 22 years as a naval officer in the civil engineer corps. Ricks handled public works at Navy and Marine facilities, overseeing the maintenance of roads and bridges.
He was public works director in Dayton, Ohio, located about three hours from Barberton, the small Akron suburb where he grew up. Ricks oversaw transportation and facilities for Fulton County, Georgia, which includes most of the city of Atlanta. He helped Norfolk, Virginia, manage a capital building boom, including the construction of four elementary schools and a $120-million court complex.
As those Norfolk projects hit the home stretch, Ricks said he started to itch for a new challenge.
“Because of my military background, I’m a guy that just loves new opportunities,” he said. “I could have just stayed, kicked back and take it easy. But I’m not that kind of guy.”
When word reached him that Palm Beach County was looking for a new county engineer, he decided to throw his hat into the ring.
With voters having passed an increase in the sales tax that is expected to bring in $810 million over the next decade for road, bridge and building improvements, the Palm Beach County job would be full of new challenges and opportunities.
“These types of jobs don’t come up very often,” Ricks said.
Palm Beach County had another arrow in its quiver: Ricks’ wife of 36 years, Julia, wanted to relocate to Florida.
“She just loves the place,” Ricks said.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker, making a hire that will be important to her own legacy, loved what she saw in Ricks.
“I believe his past experiences lend themselves to where we’re going in the future,” Baker said, adding that she also took into account the views of Webb as she considered whom to hire. “The current engineer’s input had a significant impact.”
Why not hire from within? The county has other veteran employees who could have stepped in for Webb.
“Yes, we did have existing staff that had expertise as well,” said Baker, herself a former deputy county administrator who has promoted experienced employees into top jobs with the county. “This allows us to bring some outside perspective that we can benefit from as well.”
Baker said she isn’t worried that Ricks’ hiring will discourage high-level staffers looking for promotion.
“I’m a firm believer in hiring from within,” she said. “I think my track record shows that.”
For his part, Ricks said he is thrilled to have gotten the job. Until August 31, when Webb’s retirement becomes official, he will work under his predecessor’s wing, getting a lay of the land.
A tour of the county left him impressed by the scope of the county’s operations, its use of technology, its road network.
“This is a kind of place that’s unique,” he said. “It’s a career-maker. It’s a capstone to your career.”
Ricks said he’s grateful to have the opportunity to get some guidance from Webb, whom he praised as a giant in the field of public works. He took a recent visitor to see one of the many awards Webb earned during his long career, this one as National Public Worlds Director of the Year.
“In our professional community, this is very significant,” Ricks said. “George has done some unique things.”
The same could be said of Ricks, who took up lifting as a club sport during his time at the Naval Academy.
“I kind of did enough to stay in shape,” he said. “In my 20s, I started taking it a bit more seriously.”
He said he loves the fact that the sport can still be rewarding even as he grinds past middle age.
“You can still make some gains in your 40s and your 50s,” he said. “If you would have told me that I would make these gains in my 50s, I would have said, ‘What are you smoking?’”
Despite his laurels in the sport, Meyers said the last man you’ll hear talk about Ricks’ accomplishments are Ricks himself.
“Not once have I ever heard him brag to somebody,” Meyers said. “People really look up to him. He’s like a father figure.”
A father figure who can lift an extraordinary amount of weight — as a growing number of YouTube videos can attest.
In one, recorded during an Ohio competition in March, Ricks approaches a barbell loaded with 639 pounds of weight. He gets his footing, affixes his grip on the barbell and bends his body under the weight.
An announcer excitedly tells the audience just what they’re about to witness, confusing, for a moment, Ricks’ age.
“Fifty-six years young, David ‘Superman’ Ricks,” the announcer says.
Ricks straightens his body, taking the full weight onto his shoulders and stepping back carefully from the rack.
“Six hundred, thirty-nine pound squat for this 57-year old man,” the announcer says. “Your grandfather can’t do that.”
Ricks looks to the heavens, breathes in deeply and squats low. Then, with the weight working against him and the audience cheering, he slowly stands tall.
Later in the competition, as Ricks settles under another enormous pile of weight, the announcer offers up a reminder, lest audience members worry whether the old man can handle the load.
“There’s a reason we call him Superman Dave Ricks!”