The DPW needed only a handful of workers. In fact, the department then was actually two departments: Buildings and Grounds and the Road Department, with two superintendents.
"Mayor [Paul] Amico gave me my chance," Gonnelli recalled.
At 17 years old and straight out of high school, Gonnelli had the idea he could go to college at night and work at a full-time job during the day.
"I really didn't know what I wanted to do," he said. "Most kids back then didn't go to college."
His college career lasted two years before he went on to Lincoln Technical School, where he studied to become a mechanic. Yet in the end, the job he took to support himself as he went to school became his career, eventually leading to his being named acting superintendent in 1984 and the actual superintendent in 1986.
"I didn't go back to school until the early 1990s," he recalled last week as he quietly celebrated his 30th year with the department.
In 1993 to 1995, Gonnelli received accreditation from Rutgers University and Cook College in a variety of areas that included urban forestry, recycling, athletic field construction, park management, master gardening, and roads and public works.
Gonnelli has been the superintendent through four government administrations, each of which he believes came to understand the quality of work the DPW performs.
"When I started with the DPW, we provided about a quarter of the services we provide now," he said.
To begin with, Gonnelli took over the combined Buildings and Grounds and Roads departments in 1984. Since then, the DPW has taken on additional duties not realized back in the 1970s, such as the state-mandated recycling program that required hiring more people, the medical escort program that has logged more than 6,000 trips taking local senior citizens to doctor's appointments, and in-house construction work on such projects as ball fields and public bathrooms.
"We have a lot of talent in this department," he said,
Most recently, the DPW has also taken on duties to install and repair parking meters and operate the new animal shelter.
"All of this is now under one department," he said.
Gonnelli's participation in public events went well beyond his job as he sat on volunteer boards which included the town's environmental committee and the shade tree committee.
"I always felt like I should give back to the community," he said.
Gonnelli also served six years on the Planning Board, as a volunteer firefighter since 1974, and is currently the town's delegate to a joint insurance fund involving several Essex County towns.
Over the years, Gonnelli has been cited for his heroism as a firefighter and for his work in local train crash rescues.
Gonnelli carried the Olympic torch through a section of Secaucus during the 1996 United Way Community Hero Torch festivities. In 1992, he was one of the organizers of the Christopher Columbus celebrations, and under his watch as DPW chief, he helped established several annual traditions such as the fishing derby in the spring and the Christmas tree lighting in December. He is also an active member in the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management.
In 1997, Gonnelli was named a commissioner on the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission that helped bring many additional resources to town in flood control, road repair and park development.
Mayor Dennis Elwell called Gonnelli a great asset to the community.
"Mike is a long-time employee and dedicated public servant that has done many wonderful things as the Superintendent of the Street Department," Elwell said. "Mike puts in a lot of time and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And in his role as Secaucus' first commissioner to the Meadowlands Commission, he has been instrumental in helping us get millions of dollars in grants and acquire other things we needed. He loves this community and puts his heart and soul into his job."