Mackinac Bridge toll collector/ambassador Pat Rickley is leaving the booth

ST. IGNACE, Mich. ­- We’ve got some bad news: Pat Rickley, perhaps the most-recognized toll collector at the Mackinac Bridge, retires tomorrow.

For just short of 30 years, Rickley has served as an ambassador of sorts at the Mackinac Bridge, often the first – and sometimes the only – employee customers interact with as they pass through the toll booths. Over that time, he’s made thousands of acquaintances, people he’s “kept in touch with” at the bridge through the years.

Meet MDOT, Mackinac Bridge Toll Collector, Pat Rickley

Rickley’s made it his habit to make eye contact with each driver he meets, and mention things he notices about them or their vehicle – where their license plate is from, what they have in their car – and make small conversations in the 10 seconds or so that he has with them. Most have seemed appreciative of the effort he’s made.

“Generally, they’re just happy there’s a positive person in their face,” he says. “I get to meet so many different people, see so many different personalities. It’s been a good time.”

And Rickley’s fast, too, as you might expect. He usually processes eight or nine cars per minute, including chatting time, and holds the record for most vehicles processed in an hour: 489.

Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) Chairman Patrick “Shorty” Gleason was a customer of the Mackinac Bridge before he became an Authority member, and his interactions with Rickley – albeit brief – have always been pleasant.

“Whether we’re talking about hunting, fishing, golfing, or quads, Pat has always been very welcoming and friendly,” Gleason said. “His dedication to greeting motorists is second to none.”

Rickley grew up in a family of eight just up the road from St. Ignace on Chain Lake. As kids, he and his siblings would jump on trains as they passed by for a ride into town.

After graduating from St. Ignace LaSalle High School, he joined the Army and served in artillery as part of the 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One.” He was stationed in Kansas and Alaska: four years on active duty and four years in the reserves.

When Rickley returned home to St. Ignace, he worked a variety of construction jobs, paving roads, roofing houses, working on pipelines, and fishing commercially before joining the MBA as a toll collector. Outside of work, he was elected to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, of which he is a member, to serve four years on the board of directors.

Aside from a two-year stint on the Mighty Mac’s bridge patrol, escorting placarded loads and high-profile vehicles during high winds, he’s been in the toll booths the rest of his time at the bridge.

When Rickley started at the bridge, he considered himself an introvert. Over time, he’s developed his ready banter with customers and an apparent comfort in his role. However, he says, “I’m still an introvert.”

Rickley said that while the overwhelming majority of customers are happy as they come through the tolls, not everyone is. “Not too many are really angry. Some think it’s my fault because I’m holding them up.”

It’s also unpleasant when the bridge needs to close for high winds or falling ice, which happens a few times each year, on average. What’s the most common question after a complaint about a closure?

“They ask, ‘When will the bridge reopen?’ I’m a toll collector, not a damned weatherman,” he jokes. “It’s done for the safety of the people. You look out for other people like that.”

Rickley says many days feel like the movie “Groundhog Day” in that many days seem very much like the one before, but there are certainly times that stand out. Some he’ll keep to himself to avoid any copycats, and there’s no book in the works, though he has plenty of stories he’ll share with friends over a drink.

“They do what they think is funny, and they think everyone else thinks it’s funny, too,” he explains vaguely. “You just see a lot of things.”

On the more interesting days, Rickley’s spotted and turned in intoxicated drivers, helped put out camper fires, and helped broken down motorists fix their cars after his shift ends. He’s covered tolls out of his own pocket when they’ve come up short, and the people he’s helped come back and thank him again and again.

One time he spotted a regular customer who was obviously hurting. Rickley inquired, and the man told him his spouse had passed. He reached out and took his hand and talked to him until he was ready to proceed, Rickley says. For him, that’s the best part, interacting with people.

“I look into everybody’s eyes,” he said. “I get just as much energy as I give them.”

That breadth and depth of experience has given him perspective that allows him to shrug off the less pleasant days. He offers that advice to future toll collectors. “Just take one car at a time, try to smile, and don’t let any of the words get to you,” he said.

Rickley says he enjoys all the seasons at the bridge, and only rarely needs to work night shifts anymore. He does, however, enjoy during evening shifts pointing to the horizon and encouraging customers to “Enjoy your $4 sunset!”

Now, despite enjoying his job for many years, Rickley says it’s time to go. When his daughter was young, he worked evening shifts, which cut down on time spent with her. Now he has grandchildren and wants to attend soccer games, skating, and gymnastics. He also enjoys traveling, both close to home and farther afield.

Every morning, Rickley gets up early and walks the St. Ignace boardwalk, beginning when the stars are still out sometimes, and finishing up as the sun is rising. That’ll continue in retirement, as he enjoys being out in nature and listening to its sounds, and he’s got a brand-new canoe in storage that will start seeing some use in the area he’s still grateful to call home.

“St. Ignace is a beautiful area,” he says. “I still live in one of the most beautiful places.”

EUP News Staff

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