June 15 2010 12:00 AM
Is this Wayne Rhatigan?” the voice said. “Please hold for President Obama.”

Irrigation contractor Wayne Rhatigan, 46, was tracing the lines on a newly installed system when his cell phone rang. It wasn’t a customer with a sprinkler leak or a distributor calling about a shipment of parts. It was the White House calling to patch him through to the President. After realizing it wasn’t a dream, Rhatigan ran inside and found a quiet place to take the call.

Rhatigan was once known only as “the sprinkler guy,” and as the president and owner of Tropical Storm Irrigation, Inc., Holtsville, Long Island. He’s a man the people in Long Island counted on to fix their sprinklers and ask about their kids.

His second job as a mounted police officer for the NYPD was only of interest when clients were in Manhattan and wanted their kids to take a picture with his police horse.

But now, Rhatigan’s night job has made him famous. He, along with other New York City police officers in the mounted division, are assigned to areas of heavy foot traffic in the city; his shift is from 3:30 p.m. to midnight. Rhatigan is the officer who alerted authorities to the early-May car bomb in Times Square.

Now, even the guy at his lunchtime pizza place and the woman at his dry cleaners are asking to take pictures with him. “I’m no longer just the sprinkler guy, I guess,” Rhatigan says modestly.

Rhatigan joined the New York City Police Department in 1990. To make ends meet, he had a parttime job in sales working for a landscape contractor. Ready to start a family, he and his wife, Tina Marie, bought a house in a suburb of Long Island. A friend of his, who was an irrigation contractor, offered to install an irrigation system for Rhatigan as a favor. Rhatigan thought, “That just doesn’t look right.” He went to an irrigation contractor, who offered to help him fix the problems himself, and a career was born.

Once he finished his own house, his neighbors came knocking with their own irrigation needs. Before long, he started a business and it grew with each passing year. It started out as a side job; it has since become his passion. “I built [the company] from the ground up and it’s all mine,” he says with pride.

Rhatigan is quick to give thanks and credit to friend and “guru” Ben Tristano, who encouraged him to go into business in the first place. “I started out as an inquisitive homeowner,” he says, adding that it was Tristano who helped him complete that first job on his own house. “He’s been helping me out ever since.”

Since those early days, Rhatigan has developed a real love for his craft. “Irrigation is just something I’m really passionate about,” he says. “My wife thinks I’m a kook with irrigation. We go to Walt Disney World and I peek behind bushes to see what products they’re using to irrigate their landscape.” Rhatigan also says his best employee is his 11-year-old son Dylan, who “wakes up on Saturdays and says, ‘Dad, do you have any jobs we can work on?’.” Rhatigan always has a job to do, except on Sundays when he reboots and spends time with his family.

Before he was an American hero in standard-issue police attire, Rhatigan was content to finish out his career as a police officer, while passionately tending to his irrigation business. His work day starts at 7 a.m. when he opens his irrigation company’s office. He works until 2 p.m., and then drives into Manhattan to begin his police shift. Rhatigan’s day ends when the clock strikes midnight; he goes home to get around five hours of sleep and does it all again. He says he’s been working since he was eight years old.

This hard-working guy spent the afternoon before the SUV bomb scare completing a last-minute sprinkler repair. Once he was on NYPD duty, a vendor alerted him to a smoking car in the heart of Times Square, then everything changed.

Rhatigan and partner Pam Duffy flagged over a couple of other police officers and told them something wasn’t right. They set up a perimeter around the car to make sure civilians were a safe distance away. The rest is a blur. Rhatigan says the whole ordeal didn’t really hit him until he took his wife and three kids—Kyle, 16, Dylan, 11, and Hailey, 9—to dinner and to the spot where he found the car. “If it had gone a different way, I wouldn’t have been around to show them the place,” he says.

Police have since confirmed that the suspicious car was a Nissan Pathfinder that was still running and packed with three propane tanks, two red 5-gallon plastic jugs of gasoline, a clock, electrical components and a canister of gunpowder.

Despite his recent heroism, Rhatigan is hoping to retire from the police force in the not-too-distant future and focus on his irrigation business. It’s easy to tell that here is a happy guy who loves what he does. As he talks about the customers who invite him to their kids’ birthdays and the lessons he has learned from Tristano about customer service, you almost forget the reason his name is on the President’s radar screen.

The day after being interviewed for this article, Rhatigan was scheduled to meet with the President in New York City to pose for a photo op. While understandably excited about meeting President Obama, his major concern was: “Here’s another day away from contracting.”

He’s hoping the “18 minutes of fame” dies down and he can get back to his irrigation contracting business. In the meantime, Rhatigan says his kids are having fun with all the attention. “They’re digging it,” he says; no pun intended.