Monthly Archives: July, 2017

360 Degrees of Power Plant Grief Counselling

The first time I sat through a Performance Review was with my mentor Larry Riley when I was on Labor Crew.  On a scale of 1000 I was somewhere around 850.  He said that this was the highest he had ever rated anyone so I should be proud, and I was.  As I walked out of the room and returned to work, I suddenly felt depressed.  I thought this was a strange response after just being told I was Larry’s “Star Pupil”.

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 16 years after my first performance review

Throughout the years, the Performance Review process changed a number of times.  The scale was changed to 1 to 10, then 1 to 5, then the numbers were taken away altogether and replaced with, Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, and Fails to Meet Expectations.

The different scales all meant the same thing, and that was that if someone was applying for a job or up for a promotion, then this number became significant.  The number was used to rank employees.  Anyone who had a particularly low score was told they were on probation, and if they didn’t improve, then they would lose their job some time in the future.

The only person I can remember that was placed on probation was Curtis Love.  Later, Curtis was let go because he had dented the truck (while still on probation) when he backed it into a yellow post and didn’t tell his foreman Larry.  Curtis didn’t know that Larry saw it happen standing about 100 yards away in front of the Labor Crew Building.

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

For more about Curtis, read the post “Power Plant Safety As Interpreted by Curtis Love“.  Other than that, it was nearly impossible to lose your job… Unless, of course, you upset Jim Arnold.

After the reorganization in 1994, a woman from HR came to our Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  She chose some people randomly to interview about how to make the performance review process better.  I happened to be one of the people she randomly chose…  Go figure.  I had my own ideas about Performance Reviews.

I did what I usually did, and waited my turn to speak… Well… sometimes I do that anyway…. like, in this case.  Ok.  This was a rare case.  I wanted to wait until everyone else gave their two cents before I gave her my dollar fifty, so I waited until she asked me specifically what I thought.

I began with the sentence that went something like this:  “I don’t think the performance review should be tied to a person’s promotions, or job opportunities.  I think if the purpose for the performance review is to improve performance, then it has to be uncoupled from any kind of retribution or promotion.”

I continued…. “When the performance review is tied to your promotions, then a game is played with upper management where the scores are adjusted and comments are changed after the initial rating by the manager so that only one person can have the highest rating in a department or a team for example.  If we really want to improve our performance then the program should be changed so that it focuses on behavior and how it can be approved.”

After blurting out… I mean, carefully laying out my ideas…. I could see the HR lady’s wheels turning in her head.  That was what I thought anyway.  I could tell she could see what I was saying and she was ready to take that back to Oklahoma City.  I thought, “Poor young lady, she still has ideals from her youth that the system can be changed.  She is in for a rude awakening when she goes back to Corporate Headquarters and tries to pitch an idea like that.”  In a way I felt like I had set her up for failure.

I was surprised several months later when volunteers were elicited to become “Assessment Counselors”.  Of course, I signed up as soon as I heard about it.  After all, the reason I first decided to work toward a psychology degree was because I was thinking about becoming a High School Counselor.  I had seen the effects of both very bad counselors (I won’t mention all their names here) and a very good one (Mr. Klingensmith at Jefferson Junior High in Columbia, Missouri) and thought it was important to have good counselors in schools.

By the time I decided that my major would be psychology I had already worked at the Power Plant for one summer as a summer help, and didn’t realize that the allure of working with such a great group of men and women had already seeped into my blood, so I still thought there was some other job waiting for me out there besides “Power Plant Janitor”.  Silly me.  I mean, where else do you get to work where you can wear a yellow hard hat, safety glasses, mop floors and still get to look out over a beautiful lake with all the wildlife just a few yards away?

I went to “Assessment Counselor” training and learned that the new “Performance Review” was going to consist of performing a “360 degree Assessment” every two years on each employee.  What this means is that each person will rate their own performance. Then they will rate their coworkers.  Their manager will rate each of their direct reports.  Direct Reports will rate their managers.  Customers from other teams, preferably people that have observed your work throughout the year when you performed jobs for them will rate you.

A 360 degree assessment is when everyone around you rates you.  Sealed packets are mailed to each person that needs to rate each other.  So, each person at the plant would be rating a lot of people.  Then the packets are mailed back in, put in the computer and a final report is created.

The person that is going to be rated either enters who they want to be their assessment counselor, or if they don’t, then one is appointed to them.  That was where I came in.  I was a 360 degree Assessment Counselor for 4 years.   Right up until the day I left the plant in 2001.

The longest lasting benefit I received from being an assessment counselor was that at one point the assessment counselors were given a special High Quality OGIO Sports duffel bag:

My OGIO Sport Assessment Counselor Duffel Bag

My OGIO Sport Assessment Counselor Duffel Bag

This duffel bag has been around the world from Malaysia to Brazil, as I have traveled the world counselling people.  Well, giving them my two cents anyway.  It has finally worn out it’s usefulness and now sits prominently in the Power Plant Museum I maintain in my closet (or what my wife refers to as “pile of junk”).

The way the assessment worked was that I would receive a sealed envelope in the mail with all the material needed to perform the assessment on a person.  I would then schedule a meeting with them to go over their results.  Power Plant Men are very uncomfortable with this sort of thing.  I know I always disliked performance reviews ever since I received my first one from Larry, even though it was a glowing review.

The first thing I would explain to the Power Plant Men was that this review belongs to only them and no one else.  No one will see it except them, and well, myself.  It will not be used to decide your raise or promotions or anything else.  This is solely for their own benefit to see what other people think about how they work and to try to improve.

The real benefit was that you could see the comments left by other “anonymous” coworkers which gave you a pretty good picture how others viewed your work.  Sometimes that can be an eye opener.  Then it was my job to help the Power Plant Men develop a plan to improve their “Areas of Opportunities”.

For the typical Power Plant Man at our plant, it was a difficult job to even find one hidden “area of opportunity” because just about everyone at our plant had been hand picked from a much larger group of workers over the years to be where they were today.  Being the cream-of-the-crop meant that “Opportunities for Improvement” were far and few between.  Well, I say that, but there was always Gene Day….

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

I could sit all day with Gene and come up with 30 ways he could improve himself, but that was because I had been studying him for so many years… Actually, I don’t remember if I was ever Gene’s Assessment Counselor, I was just thinking of who could use the most improvement, and suddenly Gene came to mind.  See the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.

For those unfortunate enough to have me as their assessment counselor, they found that what they thought was going to be the typical 10 minute review of their performance usually turned into a 3 hour session where I wouldn’t let them leave the room until we had three specific action items to work on for the next year.

Many times it came down to one comment from one person that alluded to some small behavior that could be improved.  Even though it might be vague, I would use it to start a discussion about how the person might be able to improve in that area.  Then we would come up with some measurable way the person could work to improve that particular attribute.  It could be “I will do such and such at least 2 times each month for the next 4 months”.

It took a couple of years before the Power Plant Men became comfortable enough to see any benefit at all from the 360 assessment, but one thing for sure…. It was better than going through a performance review that was written by your foreman and then edited three times by people higher up who didn’t know how your really worked before it was presented to you.

By the third year I had a growing reputation as someone that took the 360 degree assessment seriously and like a priest in a confessional, kept everything confidential. That is why even today, I can only tell you all about Gene Day’s performance review and how much he needed to improve because I don’t ever remember being his assessment counselor, although I wish I had, so that I could have helped straighten him out some… But then… you can’t teach an old Gene new tricks and Gene was the oldest of the old (I say that, because I know he occasionally reads these posts).

I mentioned in the post “Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out” that my favorite “roomie” who was/is a foreman at the Power Plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a lake called “Horseshoe Lake” asked me to be his assessment counselor in 2001.  We met at the Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater to go over it.

Steve Trammel had been my roommate when we were on a 10 week overhaul in Muskogee Oklahoma in 1984 just before Christmas (See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).  We have always remained good friends, and I was honored that he had asked for me to be his assessment counselor 15 years later.

There were three situations where I felt like I was unable to help the people I was assigned to counsel.  The first situation was when the person reading the comments would focus on trying to figure out who said what.  As we would go over each of the comments, they would say something like, “Yeah.  I know who said that.  They just said that because of….”  Then we would read another comment and they would say something similar.

I could still work with people that initially took this approach because we could talk about why the person would say what they said and figure out how we could go about changing the other person’s attitude toward the person I was counselling.  Maybe by taking the tactics I had taken when Jim Padgett had become mad at me.  (See the post:  “Making Friends From Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“).

The second situation that I found difficult was when the comments were broad attacks about the person.  In the sense that the person should look for another type of work, or something of that sort.  I had one female operator who was particularly upset about comments like that on her 360 assessment.  Even though we eventually came up with three ways she could improve, most of the time was spent helping her recover from the grief caused by the apparent insult in her assessment.

The third and most difficult situation I encountered while being a 360 degree assessment counselor was when I counseled someone from upper management that was planning to retire in a few years.  This person made it clear by saying right off the bat that it didn’t matter what their assessment said, he wasn’t going to change anything.  That didn’t stop me from going through all of the steps with him to create an action plan to improve his behavior.

All and all, I knew that most people didn’t take their action items and do anything about them.  That didn’t bother me.  I figured that during those three hours where we spent sitting their talking about their behavior was enough for most of them to put a thought in the back of their minds that would help them adjust their behavior at least a little when certain situations would arise.

As I mentioned before.  The people I was chosen to counsel were the best men and women in the Power Plant Industry.  The majority of the time as I watched each of them leave the room after sitting with them for three hours, I was proud to have been given the opportunity to sit with them and tell each of them that their coworkers and customers thought the world of them!

For a counselor who is looking to change the world, having to counsel this particular bunch of Power Plant People would have been very frustrating since there was barely any opportunity for improvement.  For me, this was the greatest job in the world.  “Here Fred (Generic Fred, not Fred Turner, well, it could have been Fred Turner), Look what your coworkers said about you!  Isn’t this great!?!”

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Power Plant Men Meet The Wild West

I was five years old the first time I witnessed a shootout between two people the summer of 1966.  One person was a law enforcement officer and the other person was apparently a criminal.  The criminal who had run out into the middle of the street decided to stand his ground and turned around to face the Sheriff who had been calling to him to stop… “In the name of the law” I think he said.  They paused for a moment, and then in a flurry of bullets the criminal fell to the ground.  The crowd that had gathered around in that brief moment clapped.

I had never seen a dead body before that day.

The scene I had witnessed happened on the north side of Oklahoma City, just across I-35 from a restaurant called “The Surrey House”.  It was a famous restaurant in Oklahoma City since the mid 1950’s, known for having the best pies around.  We had traveled all the way from Stillwater Oklahoma to eat at this restaurant several times in the past 2 years before this incident occurred.

The Surrey House in the early 1960s. Notice the great set of cars in the parking lot

The Surrey House in the early 1960’s. Notice the great set of cars in the parking lot

That particular day after we had eaten, we took a short jog across I-35 to go for a stroll down a street that had a western feel to it, much like the stockyard area of Fort Worth, Texas.  At that time, this particular stretch of the Interstate Highway was different than any Interstate I had ever seen in my five informative years of existence.

You could pull off into the restaurant without taking a “formal” exit.  You could even cross the highway at a couple of places by just jogging across the center median and pulling off the side of the road directly into another place of business.

As a side note:

In 1966, this particular section of I-35 was under construction.  It was still under construction when we left Oklahoma in 1967 to move to Columbia, Missouri.  Oh… and it was still under construction when we returned to Oklahoma in 1978.  In fact.  This particular stretch of I-35 was under construction for about 33 years.  It was known as a “Boondoggle”.  It was the laughing stock of the Interstate Highway system.  It did look nice when it was finally finished some time around 1990.

At This time this small stretch of highway was still referred to as Route 66.

End Side note.

As fate would have it, August 14, 1999, when my son was 4 years old and my daughter was 9, we returned to the same street where I had witnessed the shootout 33 years earlier.  The buildings were much the same, only they had a better coat of paint than when I was a child.  As fate would also have it, another shootout occurred very similar to the one I had witnessed as a boy.  The players were obviously not the same as before, but it did involve another lawman and another criminal.  The criminal ended up with his gun being shot out of his hand then he was dragged off in handcuffs.  Again, the crowd that had gathered clapped.

Here is a picture of the street where the shootout occurred:

The street where the shootout took place

The street where the shootout took place

When I was a child and we entered this small town across from the Surrey House Restaurant, this is what the entrance looked like:

Frontier City I visited as a child

Frontier City I visited as a child

When I returned with my children, here is closer to what it looked like:

Frontier City Entrance

Frontier City Entrance

As you can tell by now, I am talking about an amusement park.  As a child, it was more of a place where you just strolled around and looked at the western stores and the people dressed up in western outfits, who would occasionally break out into shootouts and play tunes on tinny pianos in mocked up saloons.

When we returned 33 years later, Frontier City had turned into a full fledged amusement parks with roller coasters and water rides.  It still had the occasional shootouts that would spill out into the streets when some Black Bart character would call the Sheriff out into the street for a one-on-one “discussion”.

I suppose you think I must have slipped off my usual “Power Plant” topic.  Actually, the day my children were standing there watching the shootout at Frontier City, all of the people standing with us worked at the Electric Company.  Frontier City had been closed to the public on August 14 (and 21) and was only allowing Power Plant Men and other Electric Company employees in the gate on those dates.

There was a sort of a rivalry within the Electric Company that I had found existed about 3 years earlier in 1996 when some lineman were at our plant from what might be called the T&D department.  This stands for Transmission and Distribution.  In other words, the department where the linemen and transformer people worked.

One of the linemen told me while we were working in the substation that the company really didn’t need Power Plants anymore.  When I asked him why, he explained that since Electricity is bought on the open market now, the company could buy their electricity from anybody.  It didn’t matter who.  The company didn’t need to own the plants.

Not wanting to start a “turf war”, I kept to myself the thought that the Electric Company that produces the electricity is the one making the money just as much as the one with the wire going to the house.  Do you think you can just buy electricity as cheap as you can from our power plants?  After all, our electric company could produce electricity cheaper (at the time) than any other electric company our size in the country.

So, when we were walking around Frontier City going from ride to ride, I half expected to see a mock shootout between a Power Plant Man and a Lineman.  Fortunately, I don’t think one incident of that nature occurred that day.  If you keep reading, you may find out why.

Some time in mid-July the employees of the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma received a letter in the mailbox inviting them to spend a day at Frontier City.  You might think this is a misuse of Electric Company funds to pay for the use of an amusement park for two days just for your employees…  After all, this came out of someone’s electric bill.

You will notice on the invite below that the company was thanking everyone for their hard work and long hours and for working safely through a difficult time.

My invitation for Frontier City

My invitation for Frontier City

Wouldn’t you know I would keep a copy….

You may wonder what difficult time an Electric Company in Oklahoma could possibly face, and I suppose the first thing that comes to many people’s minds are “tornadoes”.  In this case you would be right.  We had a very trying year with the storms over Oklahoma that had ripped through Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.

We call this a tragedy, and it was.  Over 3,000 homes had nothing but concrete slabs where their homes used to be, as an F5 tornado tore through populated areas in the Oklahoma City area.  Throughout all this destruction 36 people lost their lives.  This is a very small number considering the amount of destruction.

The evening of May 3 at my home outside Stillwater, Oklahoma when I had arrived home from work, I swept the bugs and dust out of our storm shelter, which was an 8 foot by 8 foot cube  with 8 inch reinforced concrete walls buried in the ground outside my bedroom window.  The top of it looked like a patio with a big stainless steel plated wooden door.  I stocked the storm shelter with some fresh water and snacks.

We knew tornadoes were heading our way.  The weather experts on KFOR and  KWTV in Oklahoma City were telling us all day the paths where tornadoes were likely to appear.  The majority of the people in Central Oklahoma were bracing themselves for tornadoes all afternoon.  With experts like Gary England, Oklahoma City usually found themselves well warned when tornadoes were on their way.

Gary England of KWTV Oklahoma's Premier Weather Expert of all time

Gary England of KWTV. Oklahoma’s Premier Weather Expert of all time

My wife was working as a Charge Nurse at the Stillwater Medical Center.  I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my bedroom watching the F5 tornado entering Oklahoma City.  The tornadoes had traveled 85 miles from Lawton Texas, growing as they moved across the state.

As the tornado tore through large residential areas in Oklahoma City I called my daughter, Elizabeth (Ebit) into my room and with tears in my eyes I told her we needed to pray for the people in Oklahoma City because this tornado we were watching on TV was destroying hundreds of people’s lives right before our eyes.

Less than an hour later we entered our own storm shelter as another F5 tornado was within 5 miles of our house.  My wife, Kelly was still at the hospital moving patients to safety in the basement where we had taken shelter from tornadoes when we lived on 6th street.

We spent that night going in and out of our storm shelter as tornadoes passed close by.  The F5 tornado that came close to our house took out the High Voltage power lines coming from our Power Plant to Oklahoma City for a 10 mile stretch.

High Voltage Power Pole

High Voltage Power Pole like this

There were a total of 74 tornadoes that night in Oklahoma City and Kansas.

The Electric Company was scrambling to supply power to a city that had been crippled by a tornado 5 miles wide.  We still had one high voltage line on the 189 KV substation intact where we could funnel electricity to the rest of the state that still had an intact transmission system.

The Oklahoma Electric Company had more experience with tornado damage than any other company in the country.  They often donated their time helping out other companies in their time of need.

Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans without power

Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans without power

With the help of electric companies from nearby states, electricity was restored as quickly as possible.  The men and women who work for the Electric Company in Oklahoma are the real heroes of the wild west.  It is the lineman that is called out in an emergency like this.

Linemen work until the job is complete when an emergency like this occurs.  Sometimes they are on the job for days at a time, resting when they can, but not returning to the comfort of their own bed until power is turned on for the Million plus customers that they serve.  The lineman had completed their work repairing this natural disaster without any serious injuries.

That day at Frontier City, the heroes of the day were the T&D crews that spent a significant part of their lives working to repair the damage caused by these tornadoes.  Even though there may have been some sort of rivalry between T&D and Power Supply (that is, the Power Plant employees), any Power Plant Man that came across one of the T&D linemen that day at Frontier City, tipped their hat to them (if not literally, then through their expression of gratitude).

As grateful as the Power Plant Men were for the hard work and dedication of the linemen during that time of emergency, the people who were truly grateful were the countless families who had their power restored in a timely manner.  Sitting in your house in the dark trying to find out if another tornado is on the way or wondering if the food in your refrigerator is going to spoil, and water is going to be restored is a frightening thought when your family is counting on you to make everything right.

Ticker tape parades are reserved for returning soldiers from victories.  Invitations to the White House are usually extended to dignitaries and distinguished individuals and basketball teams.  Statues are raised for heroes who have made their mark on the nation.  Pictures of our Founding Fathers are placed on our currency.  All of these are great ways to honor our heroes.

Power Plant Men and Linemen do not need this sort of gesture to know that what they do for mankind is a tremendous benefit to society.  If you would like to honor some great heroes of our day, then if you are ever travelling through Oklahoma and you see a bright orange truck travelling down the highway with an Electric Company Logo on it, then give them a honk and a wave.  They will know what you mean.  When they wave back, know that you have just been blessed by some of the greatest men and women of our generation.

Power Plant Train Wreck

I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph.  When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck.  The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.

The original chart I made was in pencil.  Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Now study this chart for a minute….  The youngest person in the plant was 31.  There was one.  The oldest were four who were 56.  If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or  58% of the entire Power Plant population.  So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement.  35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.

How did this happen?  How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years?  This happened because of two situations.

The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare.  The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired.  Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired.  So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.

There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee.  I went through all of them.  Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer.  None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore.  This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life.  It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.

I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road.  Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation.  I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.

The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed.  Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more.  A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.

As a side note:

When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80.  That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service….  That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Sure.  Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire.  He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress…  Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind.  I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).

Back to the story:

The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls.  There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department.  He was 31 years old when he was hired.  I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience.  The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company.  In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring.  In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.

The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant.  They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts.  Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance.  A training program to head off an impending train wreck.

I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked.  Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training.  All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.

Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997.  I was ready for this one.  I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education.  I was the computer whiz at the plant.  I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.

The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants.  I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree.  If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.

Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it.  My education could wait.  I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults.  I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“).  I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.

I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.

My instruction manual on how to use Windows

Here is my instruction manual on how to use Windows

The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver.  I just added the colors to it.

Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job.  I was custom designed for it.  When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved.  This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree.  The job was given to Stanley Robbins.  Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.

One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you.  They were chosen by someone else.  Through no fault of their own.  This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.

So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard.  Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints.  I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.

About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out.  He wanted Stanley to read it.  I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.

I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic.  I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew.  What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn.  I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books.  I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books.  — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.

Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that.  I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.

With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor.  He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position.  He stated that to me over and over.  I was glad for Stanley.

Stanley Robbins

Stanley Robbins

I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility.  I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001.  That is another story for a later time.

Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000.  With additional cost for each module that was added.  Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant.  So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc.  Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.

Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them.  The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.

I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information.  We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.

After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.

The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant.  I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not.  I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.

Mr. Frog’s Wild Power Plant Ride

I woke up from a dream this past Wednesday where I had just insulted a young lady who had cancer treatment by calling her “baldy”. In the dream I was attempting to be funny, but as soon as I said it, I knew I had crossed the line of common courtesy. I acknowledged right away that “I shouldn’t have said that”, and rose from my chair to go find whoever it was so that I could apologize. In my dream I was never able to find the person, though I thoroughly searched whatever restaurant-factory-office building we were in. You know how thing are in dreams.

I preface this post with that thought because someone may take offense to the title I have chosen today. So, let me just say that this is a story about someone that has been the source of constant conversation in my family for the past 30 years. Though I never refer to him as “Frog”, that is a title reserved for one of this man’s best friends. It is an expression of friendship bestowed upon Walt Oswalt by Ray Eberle.

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt

Ray Eberle is the most amazing storyteller of our time.  He captivated Power Plant audiences for the past 40 years up until the day he recently retired.  I have heard hundreds of stories by Ray, but none of them were ever said with more compassion and humor than the stories that Ray Eberle would tell me about our fellow Power Plant Man, Walt Oswalt.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

I used to think that Walt’s parents name him Walt so that it would be easy for him to spell his entire name.  Once he learned his first name, he just had to add an OS to it, and he could spell his last name.  Well, actually, his full name was Walter Lee Oswalt.  But whose counting?  I also thought that OD McGaha (prounounced Muh Gay Hay) was in a similar situation, because OD simply stood for OD  (prounounced O-D or Oh Dee).   Not to forget Dee Ball.  I’ll bet all of these guys could spell their names by the time they graduated the third grade.

Look closely at Ray Eberle’s picture above, because if you look closely into his eyes you can see that back behind those orbs, thousands of wonderful stories are packed in there waiting to be told.  I don’t know if I have mentioned this in a post before, but Ray looks just like my grandfather when he was younger.  I think I mentioned that to Ray one day.  Since those days when we used to sit side-by-side working on the computers in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have loved Ray with all my heart as if he is a member of my family (see the post:  “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“).

Even though this post is about Walt Oswalt, I am spending an unusual amount of time talking about Ray, because the stories I am about to relay are told through the eyes of Ray.  I have already passed on some stories about Walt in other posts, so I will focus on those stories about Walt experienced by Ray.  I will only scratch the surface today, as it takes some time to absorb the universal significance of each story.  If I flood you with too many  Walt Oswalt stories at once it may cause confusion.  I appreciated the fact that Ray didn’t lay all his Walt Oswalt stories on me in one sitting for this very reason.

Ray Eberle began his stories about Walt by telling me about going over to Jimmy Moore’s new house.  Jimmy had just moved into a new house outside Morrison Oklahoma not too far from Ray.  Ray described how nice the property was at the time.  It was a picture perfect piece of property.  The surrounding fields were pristine giving the feeling of peace when you looked around.

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore expression after moving into his nice house

Note the Sparco notepad in Jimmy’s pocket.   A Power Plant Electrician Necessity, just like the notepads I always used:

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

One of My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Books

Just when Ray was soaking in the perfection of Jimmy’s new property, dreaming that he could have found such a great spot, Jimmy mentioned that Walt Oswalt bought the property across the road.  Ray’s response was “Frog bought the land across the road?  Oh no!”  Not wanting to upset Jimmy, he didn’t say anything else, but he was thinking it….  You see, Walt is sort of a “junk collector”.

I have always been a junk collector myself, as you may have figured out by the fact that I still have a notepad left over from Christmas 1995.  Actually, I could take a picture of the Sparco notepads I have kept from my time at the power plant and it would look like this:

My personal collection of used Power Plant Sparco Notepads

My personal collection of used Power Plant Sparco Notepads

So, I was a note taker…  Each page of these notepads are filled with work order numbers, part numbers, phrases I heard, Things Gone Right, Things Gone Wrong meeting notes, Meeting schedules, tools needed, and sometimes just thoughts that came to my mind.  I am mentioning this because I have this common bond with Walt.  We both like to collect things that others see as “junk”.

Ray was worried that after Walt moved in across the road that the Beatrice Potter Meadow was going to change into Fallout 3  terrain (well, my phrases, not his, but I think you can picture what I am saying).  From what I understand, this is what happened.  — This by the way is not a Walt Oswalt Story.  This has been more of a Jimmy Moore story.

I have been waiting so long to actually write down a Walt Oswalt Story that I actually find it hard to bring myself to put it down on virtual paper, but here goes….

Here begins the first Walt Oswalt Story:

In the mid-90s the Internet was something of a new phenomenon.  I had taught most of the Power Plant Men how to use the Internet (excluding upper management)  as you can read in the post:  “Power Plant Quest for the Internet“.  One person who immediately saw the benefit of using the Internet beyond looking up indecent pictures or connecting with clandestine online “Match.com” experiences was Walt Oswalt.  Walt saw “business opportunity”!

So, follow me on this story, because Walt stories can become complicated on paper because I can’t talk using my hands.  I may need some help from Walt’s son Edward, since he played a major role in this one…

One day, Walt and Ray were talking and Walt told Ray that he was looking at buying a dump truck.  Let me just show a picture of a dump truck, even though I don’t know the specific truck Walt had in mind.  I just know the approximate size:

A Ford Dump Truck

A Ford Dump Truck

Let’s just suppose that it is a truck like this….  anyway, Walt explained to Ray that he could buy the truck he wanted up in Wichita one hundred miles away.  However, Walt wasn’t going to do that.  He had found the same truck on the Internet for sale for $500 cheaper near Virginia Beach, Virginia, 1,400 miles away.

Ray asked, “But isn’t it going to cost you more than that to have the truck shipped to Oklahoma?”  “Oh, I have that all figured out.  I’m going to go pick it up myself.”  He went on to explain that he and his son (this is where Edward enters the story) were going to drive non-stop to Virginia Beach and pick it up.  They won’t have to stop because they can trade off driving while the other rests.

A Flat Bed Trailer

A Flat Bed Trailer

So, a marathon trip for 2,800 miles was planned.  Walt had a trailer attached to his truck to bring the new truck back… Though I’m not sure why the thought that they could just drive the new truck home wasn’t considered (or flying out there and driving the truck back, but then, that would cost more than the $500 they were saving by buying the truck)….  The plan was that they would load the truck on the trailer and haul it home.  Maybe it was so that they didn’t have to stop because they could swap off driving if they were only driving one of the two trucks.

Two members of the Oswalt family took off for the East Coast one Friday evening.  They arrived early Sunday morning at the place of business where they were going to purchase the truck.  From what I understand, the business was closed, (being Sunday, and all), so they called the owner and told him they were there to pick up the truck.  After waiting a few hours, the truck was purchased, and Walt and Edward were on their way back home.

A couple of days later, Ray noticed that Walt had made it back home, so he went over to his house to see how he managed.  Obviously, after travelling 2,800 miles in four days, the two were bushed, but the new truck was finally home.  While Ray was talking to Walt about his trip, he happened to notice that the back of the dump truck was loaded with blown out tires.

“Hey Walt, what’s up with all the tires?” Ray asked.  “Oh.  Those.” Walt replied….  “Well, the trailer wasn’t really big enough to carry this much weight, so we kept blowing out tires on the trailer when we were coming home.”  They must have blown out more than 20 tires driving home.  So, it seems to me that this turned out to be a pretty costly savings of $500.

I would leave this story at that, but after a couple of trips to Los Angeles and back from Round Rock, TX, I have to say that spending countless hours with your family in the car where there is nothing to do but to talk to each other is an incredibly priceless experience.  Once, my son Anthony and I drove the same distance, 1400 miles non-stop from Los Angeles to Round Rock without stopping and we talked the entire time.  I would say it is an experience worth a million bucks.

The night before last, I received a message on Facebook from a Power Plant Technician, Doug Black.  He wrote:  Sooner retiree, Walter Oswalt passed away on September 30, 2015.  Walter will be laid to rest at Yukon Cemetery with a grave service on October 23, at 2 p.m.

Doug Black

Doug Black

I looked up Walt’s Obituary, and it seemed to me that there was one phrase missing from the description.  It said that “Walt had went to work for OG&E in Mustang Oklahoma and later retired from the OG&E plant in Redrock…”  I didn’t see the words, “Power Plant Legend” mentioned anywhere in the Obituary.  It should be mentioned, because that’s exactly who Walt Oswalt is.

I may not have had the benefit of sitting in a truck with Walt for 20 hours at a time, but I was able to work one-on-one with Walt one day for 19 hours straight on a Saturday when we were on “Coal Cleanup” that had turned into a job repairing conveyor belt rollers.  During that day, while I was a young man of 20, I went through the motions directed by Walt to remove and install rollers on the number 10 belt up toward the top.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

I didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing, but I had placed all my confidence in Walt.  I felt the entire time as if Walt was keeping me safe in a potentially unsafe situation even after being awake for 19 hours.  So, I have a little knowledge of what the road trip was like that Walt and his son Edward took “There and Back Again.”

It may seem that Walt had made a bad decision to make the Internet Purchase of a truck 1,400 miles away in order to save $500, but I think that God helps us along some times by sending us down a path that seems a little foolish, only to force us into a benefit we would not otherwise encounter.  I keep Walt in mind whenever things like that happen to me today and I thank him for keeping me from being disappointed with those times in my life.

Now that Walt has met his maker, I’m sure that Walt is sitting there with Jesus Christ reviewing not only Walt’s life, but also Ray Eberle’s retelling of Walt’s story.  Walt may now be surprised to find that moments that he thought were rather insignificant to anyone but himself have actually been spread to others across the world.  As I mentioned in the post about Ray Eberle, a few years ago, CEOs of large companies across the U.S. were all learning about the “Wisdom of Walt”.  Some day I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the Walt Oswalt Stories have become required reading in Oklahoma Schools.

Rest in Peace Walt Oswalt.  We all love you.

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt

Toby Teaches Power Plant Time Management

Sometime in December, 2000 Dell flew a group of Oklahoma State University students to Austin along with students from all over the country to interview for jobs.  During one interview I had with a manager named Lisa Larson, she asked me how I would handle situations where I am asked to do too many things at the same time.  I replied that I don’t ever worry about that.  I have found that by managing my time properly, I never find myself in a situation where I don’t have enough time or I feel overwhelmed.

Of course, I could see the look of disbelief, since she worked for Dell, and had experienced an overload of work beyond what normal humans can endure.  I knew that the answer she was waiting to hear was that I would prioritize my tasks and do the more important ones or those tasks that had to be completed right away first.  Instead I choose to tell her about Toby O’Brien, a Power Plant Engineer.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

You can see the confidence Toby demonstrates in the picture above.  He is so confident he doesn’t even use a Pocket Protector.  None of his pens ever leak.

I didn’t use Toby’s name during the interview.  Instead I opened up the large briefcase I was carrying with me and took out my Time Management Planner:

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

In August 1998 Toby mentioned to me that the staff at the plant had taken a course in how to manage their time.  The core object in the course was using a rather sophisticated planner.  You see, there aren’t just regular calendars in a planner, there are note pages you can use during meetings, weekly pages, and daily pages.  A place to keep your contacts.  Even a section to keep business cards.  I think my favorite section was a place to just write down ideas.  The header at the top of the page was “Ideas”.

I had just started a new semester at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma and I was ramping up the number of courses I was taking simultaneously, while at the same time working full time.  I had told Toby that I was determined not reduce the time I spent with my children in the evenings, so I had to figure out how to complete all my course work on time, and not let it interfere with the rest of my day.

Toby explained that the first thing you do in the morning is that you write down in the daily planner section everything that you will be doing that day, and what time you will be doing it.  Then as much as possible, you stick to that plan.  When you are doing one task, you don’t have to worry about all the other things you have to accomplish during the day, because you know when you will be working on them, so it allows you to focus on your task at hand.

He even was going so far as not taking phone calls or would ask to call them back when he was available when he was working on a task and then would schedule some time to call the person back.

Toby spent a good hour or so showing me how he used his daily planner.  The company was even paying for the additional sheets they used in the planners.  So, that evening I went to Office Depot and purchased my Day Runner planner with extra sections that I thought would be helpful.

At the time, I was driving back and forth between Stillwater and the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, usually twice each day, as I would leave at certain times to take a class, then drive back to work afterward, using an hour and a half of vacation as well as the half hour for lunch as I would eat on the way.

So, what would a typical Power Plant Planner look like for any particular day for someone working in the Maintenance Department?  Well, if the Power Plant Man was really proactive, and wrote everything down, then it may look something like this….

  1. Turn off the Alarm… scratch behind…. scratch bald spot on head… kiss wife on cheek…. climb out of bed….
  2. Gather clean clothes from dresser, and any supplement clothes needed from the hamper…. take shower…. brush teeth… shave.
  3. Eat a hearty breakfast – for tonight we dine in hell!… (oh… sorry… that’s not Power Plant Men.. That’s Spartans… close, but different).
  4. Make some sandwiches for lunch or use leftovers from last night’s dinner and put them in the lunch box.

    Power Plant Lunch Box

    Power Plant Lunch Box

  5.  Just before exiting the house, put on the steel-toed boots airing out just inside the garage.

    Steel Toed Boots

    Steel Toed Boots

  6. Drive the car to the carpooling location…. Pile into one car with everyone else…. Drive to plant while discussing the latest hunting and fishing adventures.
  7. After arriving at the plant 15 minutes early, sit around and drink a cup of coffee with the rest of the crew while waiting for the morning meeting to begin… Pass along any words of wisdom that suddenly popped up in the shower that morning to the rest of the crew…. Listen to some of their dumb ideas and act as if they are taken seriously while still trying to work out the terrific ideas of your own.  Chuckle at the minor “your fly is open” type jokes being played on each other.
  8. Attend the morning team meeting and receive the jobs that need to be completed that day.  Listen to the latest Power Plant Jokes played the previous day and share some that were entered in the planner that might be useful today.
  9. Leave the meeting with your bucket buddy and begin work.

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien (not related to Toby O’Brien)

  10. Gather tools needed for job… Get any supplies needed from the tool room.  Talk to the tool room attendant.

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

  11. Go to the Control Room to obtain any clearances needed to perform tasks… talk to the control room operators about their day… Play a joke on Gene Day.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

  12. Take the first break while waiting for the clearances to be put on the breakers in the switchgear.
  13. Play dominoes… Trump… or Uno during break as a team building activity. Accuse others of cheating.

    Dominoes

    Dominoes

  14. Check Breaker after break and sign clearance form…. Ask the operator how his day is going…. then perform the job safely…. dispose of any trash generated during the job.  Bandage any cuts and rub any bruises that may have been created during the job.
  15. Return clearance…. talk to the control room operators some more.  Give Gene Day suspicious glances.
  16. Strut through maintenance shop with confidence while going to the office to ask which job to do next since the first job was completed flawlessly and sooner than expected.
  17. Continue steps 10, 11 and 12 until it is time for lunch.
  18. Go to the regular lunch spot and talk to friends and learn the latest gossip and play more Dominoes, Trump or Uno (or backgammon).

    Uno Card Game

    Uno Card Game

  19. Repeat the same activities during the afternoon with the exception that a closer watch is kept on the nearest watch or clock.
  20. Take afternoon break at the same table as morning break playing the same game as before with the same people as before…

    Power Plant Playing Cards

    Power Plant Playing Cards

  21. Return to work magically fixing equipment paying even more attention to the time.
  22. Migrate to the Foreman’s office 30 minutes before “Quittin’ Time” to fill out time card.  Call each other any new names that were thought up during the day (what I would call, “Terms of Endearment”).  Play small minor jokes on teammates while completing the time card.
  23. Wait until the exact time before leaving the shop and returning to the car in the parking lot.
  24. Ride back to town with the rest of the dirty smelly Power Plant Carpoolers…. talk about any frustrating encounters from the day’s work…. Discuss any news from Corporate Headquarters designed to confuse Power Plant Men…. Fall asleep… snore….dream about the day…. wake up just as the car arrives at the carpooling spot.
  25. Climb into your own car and go home.
  26. Leave dirty smelly boots in the garage…. take off dirty shirt and pants and put them directly in the washing machine…

    Yeah. Just like this

    Yeah. these

  27. Take a shower….kiss wife… hug kids….(kick annoying cat when no one’s looking)… tell the wife about the day…. listen to wife talk about her day….eat supper.

That just about does it.  I found it a little difficult to put all that in the daily planner, especially since it was the same every day, except for when we had emergencies, and I couldn’t plan for those, unless they were part of a planned Power Plant Joke made to look like an emergency.

Anyway, back to Toby…If it hadn’t been for Toby teaching me Time Management, I would have had a much tougher time going to school while working at the same time.  I was able to keep my three worlds apart without them interfering with each other (except for all the driving back and forth).

I almost never did my school work while I was at work, and I didn’t do them at home either unless I had to write a paper on the computer.  So, I spent my evenings with my family… then I woke up at 4:00 each morning and went to the University and found a quiet place to do my homework before going to class and driving out to work.

After 4 years I graduated with a 4.0 grade point in the Business College with an MIS degree (Management Information Systems).  That was when I was hired by Dell.  I will go into the details about that in another post.

For now I just want to thank Toby for introducing me to the idea that managing your time properly can make a world of a difference.  If you noticed in the picture of the planner above, I haven’t used it since 2002.  That’s because new technologies came around that changed the way we manage our time.

Today at work I use Outlook to capture all my scheduled activities.  Microsoft Project can be used to assign tasks with a duration that tells you how long the task should take.  Another Microsoft tool OneNote is a big help for just taking notes and organizing your work.

So, even though I no longer have to buy pages for the Day Runner Planner each year, I still have the concept in my mind that while I am working on one task, I shouldn’t need to worry about another one because I have scheduled time during my day to work on those.  So I can concentrate on the task at hand.  By doing that, you never had the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Lisa Larson, who was interviewing me from Dell didn’t look too convinced when I showed her my Day Runner Planner, but I was offered the job anyway.  I don’t think it was because I had good time management skills… I think it had more to do with the fact that I had worked so many years with “True Power Plant Men and Women” that it was hopeful that some of their genuine concern for others and their attitude of dedication had rubbed off on me.

Power Plant Families Experience Pain

If I were to create a list of each time a tragedy occurred in the life of the Power Plant Men and Women of our plant, it would be quite long.  Most of the tragedies go unnoticed because when a Power Plant Man enters the front gate, an attempt is made to leave the rest of the world behind so that their full attention can be focused on returning home safely at the end of the day.

Sometimes the tragedy is too much to put aside.  Sometimes the tragedy is so devastating that the entire character of the person is shaken.  Sometimes it is only one’s Faith in God and in the fellow Power Plant Men that the heart is kept beating.

Just as in a small town like Mayberry (from the Andy Griffith Show), everyone knows everyone’s business in a Power Plant.  This was true when I worked as an electrician in the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  There were some people you were closer to than others, but whenever there was a tragedy in anyone’s life at the plant, everyone felt the pain.

In everyone’s life, there is always a loss of loved ones.  This is expected in most cases.  When someone’s Mother died, we knew that a certain amount of grief would be felt.  Those weren’t “tragedies” per se, unless the death was unexpected or caused by an accident.  Power Plant Men know that death is a part of life.  They would be there to comfort each other during those times.

The most devastating tragedy that one can imagine is the loss of a son or a daughter through a tragic accident.  In this post I will focus on two times when I worked at the Power Plant when True Power Plant Men lost their sons through a tragic accident.  I bring up these two events because I wish to share the grief that was felt by the entire community at the time.  I think this is important because times like this help define the character of everyone involved.

Ron Hunt was born November 2, 1948.  He graduated from Ponca City High School in 1966.  He had a number of jobs before being hired in 1981 at the Power Plant as a mechanic.  After working at the plant for almost 20 years, one day his crew had to work late into the night to repair the Number 2 Conveyor Belt.

Ron Hunt

Ron Hunt

Some time around 2 am, when the work was almost done, the counterweight for the belt that weighs at least 5 tons, that had been welded in place to keep the weight off of the belt while they were working on it, was being cut loose in order to put the belt back into service.  At this point the entire crew had been working for over 18 hours without much of a break.

The counterweight, which is used to keep the the belt tight, was bolted to the railing so that when the plates were cut off the weight wouldn’t fall.  Ron Hunt was standing on the counter weight working with the others to cut the weight loose.  As the plates were cut using blow torches, the weight gave way, and dropped.

The bolts that were used to hold the weight in place had not been tightened.  After working 18 hours, and not being mechanical engineers who understand the importance of tensile strength in bolts that are tight as opposed to bolts that are loose, the group of men didn’t know that the loose bolts didn’t have the strength to hold the weight in place.  Especially if the weight dropped an inch before hitting the bolts.

Because of this circumstance, the weight fell to the ground with Ron standing on top of it.  As it fell, Ron scraped his leg causing a serious gash down the side of his leg.  He was rushed to the hospital, where after a couple of months he was able to report back to work at the plant.

Not long after Ron Hunt had returned to work, one afternoon, his son was driving a Coca Cola Truck, or some other beverage truck from Ponca City down Highway 177 toward Stillwater.  About 5 miles after passing the plant where his father worked, as he was approaching the railroad tracks that go through Morrison Oklahoma, a train suddenly appeared from behind the tree line.  The lights on the railroad crossing turned on and the arms began to lower.

As most Power Plant Men that lived south of the plant knew, whenever a train was approaching that particular crossing, the warning light and the arms didn’t start coming down until the train was almost at the crossing.  Many of us had the experience of trying to come to a fast halt when suddenly the light turned on while we were within 100 yards of the tracks and a train suddenly appeared from behind the trees.

This is what happened to Ron Hunt’s son that day.  The truck was not close enough to the tracks to avoid hitting the crossing arms that suddenly dropped down, and was too close to the tracks to stop a truck full of product.  Skid marks were left where the Ron’s son had desperately tried to stop the truck in time.  Unfortunately, he was not able to stop before crossing the railroad track directly in front of the train.  He was killed in a fiery crash as the engine of the train derailed.

For weeks on the ride home from work, when we approached the railroad track, we would see the railroad investigators working on the accident.  Each day, as we crossed the tracks we were reminded of the tragedy.  We would think about what Ron Hunt was going through.  We could only imagine what Ron was going through.

Jim Kirkendall worked in the Coalyard from the first day he arrived at the Power Plant, March 19, 1979.  This was just a month and a half before I showed up my first summer to work as a summer help.  The plant was still under construction, so I met Jim when I would go to the coalyard to work with Gary Michelson or Jerry Mitchell when we were filtering all the oil in the plant through the blotter press.

An Oil Blotter Press Similar to the one we had

An Oil Blotter Press Similar to the one we had

Jim has red hair and reminded me of an English detective, much like Philip Jackson who played Inspector Japp in the British TV series “Poirot”:

Philip Jackson playing Inspector Japp in "Poirot"

Philip Jackson playing Inspector Japp in “Poirot”

Jim Kirkendall experienced such a tragedy one day that the entire plant was stunned into sorrowful silence when they learned what happened.  The day was June 10, 1998.  When his son was late coming home that day in Morrison Oklahoma, Jim went out to look for him in the pasture where he had been baling large bales of hay.

Large Round Hay Bale

Large Round Hay Bale

As Jim approached looked out over the pasture, he could see the tractor with the baler attached, and the bale of hay that was still attached was on fire.  As Jim quickly approached the baler, he found that his son Jim Aaron had been caught in the baler and had been baled up in the round bale that was on fire.

I don’t know how anyone can remain alive after coming across a scene where your very own 17 year old son has been killed in such a way.  I think the grief alone would have been so suffocating that I would have died right there on the spot.  Somehow Jim survived this experience.

I bring up both of these tragic events today, because in order to understand the bond that exists between the Power Plant Men and Women who have worked side-by-side at a Power Plant for many years, it helps to know that when tragedies like these occur, the entire group of Power Plant Men is changed.  Even though the events themselves are tragic, the resulting change in the character of the plant is improved.

Times like these have taught the Power Plant Men and Women who they really are inside.  It turns out that they are all men and women of great compassion.  They joke about it at times with Safety stickers like this:

The phrase was: 'Cause I Love You Man!

‘Cause I Love You Man!

This hard hat sticker expresses the bond that exists within the Power Plant family more than it was originally intended.  After Randy Dailey gave me a stack of these a few years after I left the plant, I have kept these stickers handy to remind me of that bond.

I was reminded of this bond this past week when Ben Davis reached out to me to let me know that Ray Eberle’s wife Barbara passed away the previous Friday.  I knew that Barbara was very ill, and that Ray has been by her side almost constantly for the past year caring for her, so I was not surprised by the news.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

Ray’s nickname for me is “little buddy”.  I follow his family on Facebook and up until the very end when Barbara was very sick, whenever she would post something on Facebook it was very positive.  A proud grandparent.

I left the plant over 14 years ago.  Yet, what happens in the lives of my Power Plant Family is just as important to me today as it was the day I left.

I know that Ray grieved when Barbara died, but I also know that he had a feeling of joy at the same time.  His wife Barbara had been struggling with her health for a long time.  Ray knows that now her life is finally fulfilled.  No more pain.

Ben Davis sent me an e-mail shortly after he learned about Barbara.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

Not because I asked him to keep me informed about Power Plant News.  He told me what happened because we are part of the same family, and we share each other’s joys and sorrows.

Even though Ray has been retired for the last few years, he is still as much a part of the family as I am, and I have been gone for 14 years.

I suppose some day in the not too distant future, everyone I know from the Power Plant will have retired or passed away.  Some day there will even be a video online of the entire plant being destroyed as it is bulldozed under to make way for newer technology.  The lives of these brave Power Plant Men will not be forgotten.

The lives of the Power Plant Men are etched into eternity.  Not because they pushed countless electrons down wires to light up houses, but because of the bond that exists between them.  Because the love that Power Plant Men and Women have for each other is the type of Love that comes from God.

Power Plant Confined Space Rescue Team Takes It to the Next Level

Bill Green, the Plant Manager at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma stopped me in the hallway August 17, 1998.  He told me that we were going to have a new Plant Engineer working for us in two weeks and she had heard that we had a Confined Space Rescue team and she wanted to join it.  I told Bill that I looked forward to having a new member on our team.  We had been a team for 4 years and some new blood would be great.

Bill Green

Bill Green

Bill told me that the new engineer’s name was Theresa Acedansky and that she was a volunteer fire fighter.  She was coming to work for us from Foster Wheeler I thought that Acedansky was a unique name.  I thought that I would spend some of my spare lunch times looking up Theresa on the Internet.

At the time, there were some Internet search engines such as Excite that would crawl the web looking for all the available pages on the Internet, and give you a complete list of every page found.  In 1998, I think the number of web pages were still in the millions, so it wasn’t the daunting list that we have today.  Google and Bing own the search tools today, and they only give you what they want to show you.  So, back then, when I searched on “Acedansky”, I found basically everything ever written that had that word in it.

By the time that Miss Acedansky arrived at our plant on August 31, 1998, I pretty much knew her work background (Remember, this was before LinkedIn that began in 2003) and where she had graduated high school.  I knew about her sister in Pennsylvania (I think it was), and her mother in Florida who worked at a Catholic Church.  I had basically stalked this person I had never set eyes on for the two weeks prior to her arrival.

I did all this gathering of information because I was (as Bill Bennett used to call me) a “scamp” or a “rascal”.  I figured that anything I could find could be used to introduce Theresa to the fine art of “Power Plant Jokes”.  Just as I had compiled my list for Gene Day in order to help him work through his psychological problems (See the post “The Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“), I figured I could offer a similar service to Theresa when she arrived.

I think I might have been able to spook her a little a couple of weeks after she arrived when I pinged her on ICQ, which was one of the few direct chat windows at the time.

The ICQ Logo

The ICQ Logo

She was easy to find since her ICQ number was listed on a fire fighter web site.  When I began asking her about how her sister was doing in whatever town she was in, and how her mom liked Florida since she had moved there (and I knew about when), she said, “Gee, I didn’t realize that I had talked so much about myself.”

What is easy to find on someone today on the Internet took a little more work back then, and people didn’t realize the vast amount of knowledge available at your fingertips.

Since we Theresa was joining our Confined Space Team and would need the proper training, we took advantage of the situation to have the rest of us trained again.  It had been four years since we had formal training.  We made arrangements to have a Confined Space Training team from Dallas come up and teach us.

We practiced tying knots in our rescue rope behind our backs in the dark wearing our leather rescue gloves.

Rescue Gloves

Rescue Gloves

The padding across the palm of the rescue gloves we used were to keep from burning your hands when you were rappelling down a rope.  With the formal training we were given the opportunity to once again put on SCBAs and go through a smoke-filled maze crawling through tunnels to rescue someone.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

After our training Randy Dailey, “Mr. Safety” from our team suggested that we meet regularly with the rest of the Confined Space Rescue Teams in order to learn “Best Practices” from each other.  So, we contacted the other teams and began meeting regularly at each of the plants, or some other spot where we could all meet together.

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

When we arrived at the Muskogee Power Plant to meet with  the rest of the Confined Space Teams, we found that the entire team at Muskogee had all become certified EMTs (which means Emergency Medical Technician).

Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma

Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma

The Muskogee Plant was right across the Arkansas river from Muskogee where Firefighters and rescue teams were close by.  Our plant in North Central Oklahoma was out in the country, 25 miles from the nearest rescue team.

We took the idea that our Confined Space Rescue Team should all be trained EMTs, which was positively received… if we wanted to go out and do it ourselves.  That may have been easy if we all lived in the same town, but as it was, it is 45 miles from Ponca City to Stillwater, or Pawnee, or Perry, the four towns where Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma resided.  So, all of us taking training as a team on our own was not practical.  So, that never happened.

We did, however, become very proficient in tying someone down in a stretcher.  Our team practiced tying someone into a stretcher until it took us only one minute and 37 seconds to have someone completely hog-tied down in a stretcher to the point that they couldn’t move.

Rescue Stretcher

Rescue Stretcher

We demonstrated this to our plant during one of our monthly safety meetings by tying up our Plant Manager Bill Green in a stretcher so that he couldn’t move more than an inch in any direction.  Then we proved it by picking him, turning him over so that he was facing the floor.  Then swivelling him around so that he was upside down with his head toward the floor and his feet up in the air.  We showed how his head didn’t slide down to touch the rail on the stretcher.

I think as we were swiveling our  Plant Manager around all tied up in the stretcher, Bill was asking himself if this was such a good idea.  At the same time, the members of the rescue team were thinking this would be a good time to ask Bill again if we could be trained EMTs.  I can say that it felt good to take the Plant Manager and set him on his head, I wish someone had taken a picture… but alas, we didn’t have cell phones with cameras at that time.

In 1999 we held a “Confined Space Rescue Conference” in Oklahoma City.  Harry McRee did some rescue team training for us at the training facility in Oklahoma City where the rescuers had to be lowered down into a tank in the dark in order to rescue their rescue dummy.  It was there that I met with Harry about the Switchman Training I had been doing at our plant (see the post:  “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with Boring“).  I have kept Harry’s card since the first day I met him.  He was a very likable person and I suppose still is to this day.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Because we had officially called this a “Conference” (I think so that we could repeat it each year around the same time), we had T-Shirts made:

We even had T-Shirts made for our Confined Space Rescue Conference in 1999

We even had T-Shirts made for our Confined Space Rescue Conference in 1999

This has been my favorite “company” shirt I have ever worn (out).  There are various reasons I think that I like this shirt so much.  One reason may be that it is made with very sturdy material.  Sure, it’s cotton, but it’s made with what is called “SuperWeight” cotton (from Gildan Activewear).  It has kept this shirt from falling apart even though I have worn it regularly over the past 16 years.

Or maybe because Green is my favorite color because it reminds me of grass and trees, and um… other green things.  Ok… no…. I admit it…. It’s really because of what the shirt says and what it represents.  See here is what is written on the shirt:

Confined Space Rescue Conference Shirt up close

Confined Space Rescue Conference Shirt up close

There is the pride of having served on the Confined Space Rescue Team for the number one best Electric Company in the country (and therefore in the world).

No.  I think the real reason I like wearing this shirt is because to me, it brings me back to the days when I worked with some of the best people that God ever thought to create.  The Power Plant Men and Women found in North Central Oklahoma.  It is this reason that I keep looking for this shirt to come back to my closet from the laundry so that I can put it on again.  When it does, I wear it for several days at a time.

It isn’t that I wear it because of Pride.  I wear it for comfort.  Not the comfort from wearing a shirt with a fraying collar, but the comfort that I receive by flying back to the time we spent together as a Power Plant Team.  I wear this shirt for the same reason that I write these Power Plant Man Posts.  I wear this shirt to celebrate their lives.

So, whatever happened to Theresa Acedansky?

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have been able to return to visit four times.  One time I visited in 2004 and David Evans, a Control Room Operator told me that Theresa Acedansky, who I knew had moved to the Muskogee Power Plant, had married a Power Plant Man at the Muskogee Plant.

David Evans waits for Jim Padgett to get a cup of coffee -- Thanks Jim Cave for the picture

David Evans waits for Jim Padgett to get a cup of coffee — Thanks Jim Cave for the picture

David couldn’t remember the name of the person that she married.  Today, that isn’t hard to find.  Just this morning, I looked it up and found that Theresa married Tommy Seitz.  Knowing that, I was able then to find her on LinkedIn, only to find that we already share 35 connections.  So, I sent her a connection request.

I also learned that Theresa and Tommy now live in Oklahoma City, and that Tommy’s father died in 2010… Ok… I know… creepy huh?  We know everything we want to know about each other these days.  So… you would think I would be able to come up with a picture of Theresa….

That was a difficult one, but I did finally find one.  You see, I know that when Theresa gets involved in something she is the type of person that dives right in and puts all of her effort forward…. She did that when she was a firefighter.  She did that when she was a confined space rescuer.  She also does this with her current job as the Director of Utility Technical Learning at the Electric Company.

I knew from back in 1998 that Theresa’s middle initial was M.  I think I actually knew what the M stood for, but I can’t remember today… Maybe Maria or Mary.  This helped the search this morning.  What I did find was that Theresa is a member of a group called PRB Coal Users’ Group.  PRB stands for Powder River Basin… Which happens to be where the Electric Company buys the coal used at the Coal-fired plants.  Not only is she in the group, but she is the Vice Chairperson on the Board of Directors for this group.  Why doesn’t this surprise me?

Theresa Acedansky is the Vice Chairperson for the Power River Basin Coal Users' Group. The only woman on the Board of Directors

Theresa Acedansky (Seitz) is the Vice Chairperson for the Power River Basin Coal Users’ Group. The only woman on the Board of Directors and probably the person really in charge.

And as Paul Harvey would say, “Now we know the rest of the story…..”

Power Plant Trip Leads to Game of Frogger

Some days when everything seems to be going just right, some little thing comes along that throws a wrench into the end of a perfect day. That’s what happened to the husband of the timekeeper at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Vance Shiever had spent the day baling hay into large bails in a pasture outside Morrison Oklahoma. All day while he worked, off in the distance he could see the plant where his wife Linda spent her week days.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever was one of the first two employees hired at the Coal-fired plant along with Sonny Karcher.  She was hired on May 30, 1978, just 10 days after her marriage to Vance.  During the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant, I heard Linda talk about Vance often.  So, when Ray Eberle began telling me a story about him, I already had a picture of a Vance in my head much like Paul Bunyan (having never met him in person):

Like this Paul Bunyan only with tinted glasses. Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain

Like this Paul Bunyan only with tinted glasses. Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain

Ray Eberle said that he had stopped to visit Vance this particular Saturday afternoon when Vance was just finishing up loading the bales of hay onto a large flat bed semi-truck trailer.

Large Round Hay Bale

Large Round Hay Bale

About that time, Walt Oswalt drove by and saw his best buddy Ray standing out in the pasture talking with Vance, so he pulled off the road to visit Vance and Ray.  This is the same Walt Oswalt that I wrote about last month (see the post:  “Mr. Frog’s Wild Power Plant Ride“).  Ray’s nickname for Walt was Frog.  Even today when I talk to Ray, he refers to him as Frog.

While Ray, Walt and Vance stood there talking, Vance looked off in the distance toward the Power Plant looming in the distance.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset

He mentioned that even though his wife has worked there for 20 years (at that time), he had never actually been to the plant.  Ray said that he would be glad to give him a tour of the plant right then and there if he wanted to see it.  This was a tempting proposition for Vance, who had been curious for many years about what actually went on there.

Vance said that it would be great if he could have a tour of the plant, but unfortunately, he still had to tie down all the bales of hay on the truck before he headed off to Muskogee to deliver his load by morning.  At this point Walt spoke up and said that Vance should go with Ray on a tour of the plant.  Walt said he would tie down the bales.  Vance replied that he wanted to make sure the bales of hay were properly secured before he took his trip down the turnpike to Muskogee.

Walt was insistent that Vance should go take a tour of the Power Plant and that he would tie down the bales of hay.  He knew how to do it.  Vance gave Walt some instructions about how to make sure the bales were securely tied down, and Walt kept reassuring Vance that he knew what he was doing.

A truck loaded with large round bales

A truck loaded with large round bales properly tied down

Walt finally convinced Vance that he could handle the hay bales, and Vance went with Ray Eberle to tour the Power Plant.  Ray said that Vance was so excited to finally be able to see the plant up close.  Ray gave Vance the full Power Plant Tour, which can take a few hours, especially with a professional story teller such as Ray Eberle:

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

It was dark when Ray and Vance returned to the pasture where the large semi-truck was parked.  Walt was taking a nap in his car waiting for them to return.

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt

Vance asked Walt if he had tied down the bales of hay, as it was too dark to tell for sure.  Walt assured Vance that the bales of hay were securely tied down to the bed of the trailer.  He had no need to worry.  Now it was time for a second favor…

Ray had given Vance a long desired tour of the Power Plant, so Ray asked Vance if he would do a favor for him.  Ray had never had the opportunity to ride in a “Big Rig” Semi Truck, so he asked Vance if he would let him ride with him to Muskogee and back.  Walt would follow along behind them to bring Ray back home when arrived in Muskogee.

Vance was glad to return the favor.  Ray climbed into the truck and it pulled out of the pasture and onto the dark highway 64, then the Cimarron Turnpike that ran next to Morrison.  Walt, following along behind.  The traffic on this particular stretch of the Cimarron was always light, especially on a Saturday night.

This was a perfect day for Vance.  He had spent the day doing what he loved.  Baling Hay and loading it on the trailer.  The first class tour of the Power Plant with the best tour guide in Oklahoma and the surrounding states (since Mark Twain is no longer with us).  Now, driving down the highway with a load of hay with a good friend sitting shotgun.  What could be better?

Ray was thinking that there was something in the air that just wasn’t quite right.  The few other cars that were driving down the highway seemed to be driving a little more erratic than usual.  Well, it was Saturday night….  Maybe that was the reason a couple of cars swerved around the truck honking their horns before speeding off into the night.

Eventually, one car pulled up alongside the truck so that Vance could see the person in the passenger side.  They were frantically pointing back behind them.  Oh No!  Yeah.  That’s right.  If you have been reading this post with more than a simple glance, you have already surmised what was happening. Vance quickly pulled off the side of the road and came to a stop.

Ray finally realized what was happening at that point…  As they were travelling down the highway, the bales of hay had been flying off the truck into the middle of the dark highway.  Vance jumped out of the truck yelling, “I’m going to kill him!  I’m going to kill him!”  He stood in the middle of the highway, fists out at his side, waiting for Walt to show up… after all, he was following the semi when they left the pasture.

Ray could see Vance standing in the middle of the highway like Paul Bunyan, with the red glow of the tail lights dimly lighting the back of the truck.  Waiting for Walt to arrive… but Walt didn’t show up.

Ray and Vance spent the next hour or so walking down the highway pushing the large round bales off the side of the turnpike.  Luckily, few cars were travelling on the Cimarron Turnpike that night and no one was hurt (yet).  After walking a couple of miles back to the truck both Ray and Vance were worn out.  They were beat.  All the rage that Vance had felt when he realized that Walt had not tied down the bales was gone.  He was too tired at that point.

About that time, Walt Oswalt came driving down the highway and saw the truck pulled over.  He pulled up behind the truck.  Vance was too tired to confront him for his failure to secure the bales.  Where had Walt been for the last hour and a half while Ray and Vance had been rolling bales of hay off of the road?  That’s what they really wanted to know.

Walt said that when they left the pasture he suddenly realized that he was hungry, so he went down to the diner in Morrison and ate some supper.  When Ray was relaying this story to me, he said, “Walt’s stomach probably saved his life.  By the time he showed up, Vance was too worn out to kill him.  Besides… that really wasn’t Vance’s nature.  But there for a moment, I thought if Walt had showed up right away, his life may have been in danger.”

Of all the Walt Oswalt Stories, this is my favorite.  When I sat down to write my post this morning, this story was on my mind, so I thought for a moment what would be a good title.  I thought of the game of Frogger where the frog jumps across the road dodging the cars.  In this case, of course, it was the cars that were dodging the round bales of hay that were placed there because of the actions of a man whose best friend calls him “Frog”.  So, I wrote:  “Power Plant Trip Leads to Game of Frogger”.

A game of Frogger

A game of Frogger

Then I thought, I have pictures of Ray and Walt.  Let me see if I can find a picture of Vance on the Internet.  So, I did what I usually do in this instance.  I opened up Google and searched.  I typed Vance Shiever, Morrison Oklahoma.  The link at the top of the page said, “Vance Lee Shiever – Stillwater News Press:  Obituaries”.  Oh No!  What?!?!

I quickly clicked the link and my heart fell.  There was a picture of a man smiling back at me… Vance Lee Shiever.

Vance Shiever

Vance Lee Shiever

Vance died this past Tuesday from pancreatic cancer.  I had no idea!  I have been so busy this past week that I haven’t even logged into Facebook since last weekend.  If the dates are right, (because I know that Stillwater News Press often misspells names and dates), then Vance is having his funeral service this very afternoon.  I don’t believe for a moment that this is just a coincidence.

I have found that the members of the Power Plant Family in which I was a member for 20 years keep in touch in various ways.  Sometimes it is by e-mail. Sometimes it is through Facebook.  Other times, we just think about each other, and we just seem to know that something is up, even when we aren’t sure what.  I believe that is what happened this morning.

This past month three people have died in the Power Plant Family.  Walt Oswalt, Vance Shiever, and Ray Eberle’s wife Barbara.  I have often heard it said at the Power Plant that things always seem to happen in 3’s.  This Power Plant Post was one story about those three.

I thought that I should find a better picture of Vance, so I logged into Facebook, and the first picture that came up was this picture of Vance, the photo that was used by the New Press:

Vance Shiever, adored husband and father

Vance Shiever, adored husband and father

I can now picture Vance watching over his family from Heaven.  By the way that Linda always spoke of Vance, I know that he was one of those rare people full of kindness.  I also picture him going through the videos of his life with Saint Peter.  All those happy days he spent with Linda, and their children Beau and Lindsey….

Then as Saint Peter works the remote, he pulls up the video of Vance out in the field loading the round bales on the trailer as Ray pulls up in his truck.  As they watch this story unfold, they both break out in laughter as they watch Vance standing like Paul Bunyan in the middle of the highway waiting for Walt.  Saint Peter puts his arm around Vance, as they turn and enter the gates of Heaven.  Saint Peter mentions one last thing to Vance, “Yeah.  It is like Ray said…. Walt’s stomach saved his life.”

Addendum to this story:

After posting this last week, Ray Eberle contacted me and pointed out that Vance had died one year ago to the day from the date I created this post on November 7, 2015.  He actually died November 7, 2014.  No one had told me about Vance’s death, and when I pulled up Facebook, the first picture I saw was a picture of Vance, which further enforced my thought that he had died this past week.  The family was remembering his funeral service from the previous year. — This would explain why the Stillwater NewsPress said that he died on a Monday, when the date was on a Tuesday.

Power Plant Control Room Operator and the Life of Pi

Whenever I walked into the Control Room at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw Jim Cave manning the helm, I couldn’t help but smile.  I would do the same thing when Gene Day was standing there, but for a different reason.  Jim just seemed to make everyone feel at ease.  There is something special about his personality that rubs everyone the right way.

Jim worked for the company the first summer in 1979 when I was working as a summer help in the maintenance shop.  I really didn’t know him until he became a control room operator and I was in the electric shop.  He was always one of the brighter bulbs in the box.

When I first met Jim Cave, the first thing that came to mind was that he reminds me of a News reporter.  He looks like someone that you would think would be telling you the daily news on TV.  He has that likeable face that you would trust to tell you the news each day.  Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with Jim because he automatically brightened up the photograph.  Thanks to Jim’s Facebook page, I have some pictures to show you.

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from right to left)

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from left to right)

Actually, I think all of the pictures of operators that I have used in my posts over the years have come from Jim Cave’s Facebook photos.  You can see from the picture above that Jim Cave seems to stand out as someone who might be a reporter on the nightly news.

Before I tell you about how Jim Cave has his own story pertaining to the Life of Pi, let me show you a couple of more photos of Operators who couldn’t resist posing with Jim Cave:

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar?  Joe.  Is that a Mandolin?

You can see that no matter the situation, Jim is always smiling.  I can’t think of any time that I saw Jim that he wasn’t smiling a genuine smile.

Now that I have embarrassed Gene Day by showing him wearing short shorts (which was the full intent of this post.  The rest about Jim Cave is just to put it in some sort of context), I will begin the actual story…

A new computer was installed one day that was called a VAX system. Instead of being a large mainframe computer in cabinets, this one sat out in the middle of the floor.

a VAX server

a VAX server

This allowed the control room to monitor readings from most of the power plant systems right there on a computer monitor.  This was a new thing at the time.  A few years after it was installed, a new program was installed on a computer on the counter behind the Control Room operator’s desk.  The software was called PI.

OSIsoft software called PI

OSIsoft software called PI

As a side note:  This software was being used by Koch Industry to control oil pipelines across the country.  I’ll tell you how I know below.

When a program like this is first installed, it isn’t of much use.  The reason is that in order to monitor everything, the screens have to be setup.  You can see by the screenshots above that each graph, icon and connecting line has to be defined and setup in order to show you a full picture of what is happening.

If a lot of effort is put into building the screens, then this application not only becomes a great benefit to the control room operators, it also benefits the entire operation of the plant.

We had the same situation with SAP.  We had installed SAP in 1997 at the Electric Company, but the real benefit comes when an effort is made up front to put in all the expert data to make it useful.  While Ray Eberle and I were working to put the expert data into SAP, this new PI system was installed in the Control Room.  In order to make it useful, screens needed to be built.

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore standing in the control room

Notice the alarm panels are still there in the picture in 2005.

Some operators weren’t too keen on the computer since they had been staring at these alarm panels all their adult life, and they were just in tune with the power plant as they could be.  Paper recorders, gauges that you might have to tap every now and then to take an accurate reading… colored red, yellow, blue and red lights.  Red Level gauges, Counters, Knobs to turn, Switches to toggle.  Buttons to push.  All of these things gave the operator a physical connection to the power plant system.  Who needs a computer?

Jim Cave saw the benefit right away.  He took the Pi Manual out and began reading it.  He learned how to create new screens and add components.  Then he began the work of giving “Life to Pi”.

Each time Jim added a new system to Pi, the operators saw the benefit of using this tool more and more (like Allen Moore).

In 2000, Jim Cave had built a complete set of screens, releasing the Power of PI upon the Control Room Operators making their jobs easier and giving them much more insight into the operation of the plant that they never would have dreamed 5 years earlier.  (except for Bill Rivers who had predicted this day 17 years earlier when no one would believe him).

Jim Cave’s Shift Supervisor, Gary Wright wanted to recognize Jim Cave for the tremendous effort he put forth to build the PI system into every Power Plant Operator’s dream.  So, he went to Bill Green the Plant Manager and told him that he would like to do something special for Jim to recognize all the effort he put into the Pi system.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

A young picture of Gary Wright in the front row with Glasses and red hair. Oh, and Gene Day in the Orange Shirt… finally wearing some decent pants.

Bill replied to Gary by asking if Jim did this while he was on the job, or did he come in during his own time to work on it.  Gary replied that Jim had done this while still performing his job of Control Room operator through his own initiative.  It wasn’t part of his regular job.  Bill clarified, “But this work was done while Jim was on the clock?” “Yes”, Gary answered.  “Then Jim was just doing his job”, Bill replied.

Bill Green

Bill Green

At this same time, I was having a conflict of my own that I was trying to work through.  I will go into more detail in a later post, but here it is in a nutshell….

I had been going to the university to get a degree called “Management Information Systems” or MIS from the business college at Oklahoma State University.  I had been applying for jobs in the IT department in our company, but for reasons I will discuss later, I was not allowed to move to the IT department, even when I had only one semester left before graduating with the degree.

My problem was that I was being offered jobs from various companies when I graduated in May.  Boeing in Wichita even gave me a job offer and wanted me to leave school and to work for them on the spot for having a computer and an electrical background to work on military jets, (which sounded real cool).  The electric company had been paying all of my tuition and fees and 75% of the cost of the books.  So, my education had been paid by the company.  I told Boeing that above all, I wanted to finish my degree before I began my career in IT.

I felt as if I owed the electric company my allegiance and that I would stay with them, and that is why I kept applying for jobs within the company.  I felt that way until the day I heard this story about Gary Wright trying to recognize Jim Cave for his extra effort.

When I heard Bill’s response was, “He was just doing his job…”, it suddenly hit me….  The company paying for my tuition was one of my benefits.  I didn’t owe the company anything in return for that.  I had already given them what was due.  I had been their employee and had done my job.  I no longer felt the need to “pay back” the company by staying.  I had already paid them with my service.  I actually remember saying that out loud to Ray Eberle.  “The company paying for my education is my benefit.”

This was a turning point in my job search.  I felt perfectly free after that to accept a job from another company.  Bill’s response to Gary Wright had opened my eyes.  I felt perfectly at ease accepting the job offer from Dell the following month.  It’s too bad that it took snubbing Jim Cave’s extraordinary effort by the plant manager to put my understanding of my situation in the proper light.

During that time, I had a job offer that I had turned down from Koch Industry in Wichita because they didn’t offer me as much pay as some of the other job offers I had received.  A month later they called me back and asked me to go for another interview in a different department.

When I showed up for the interview, it was with the SCADA department.  SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition.  That is what the electric company called the system that opens and closes breakers remotely.  Koch Industries uses the same type of system to control the pipelines across the country from their one location in Wichita.

After the interview, they showed me around the office.  When we walked into the lab, one person showed me the computer system they were using to control all the pipelines, and lo and behold…. it was the PI system.  The same one that Jim Cave had learned in the control room at our Power Plant.  They offered me a job in that department as well for a little more.

I thought to myself that if I accepted the job with Koch, then I would ask Jim to teach me what he had learned about the Pi software.  This would come in real handy.  It turned out that the offer from Dell was even better than Koch, which was my second choice if I hadn’t accepted the job at Dell.

Things have changed at the plant since the picture in 2005.  I believe it was in 2006 that the alarm panels were removed from the control room and everything was put on the computers.  The control room operators no longer have to stand in front of panels of lights and gauges and knobs and buttons and switches.  It is all viewed on computer screens.

Here is a picture of Jim sitting in front of some of those computer screens…

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

I see eleven computer monitors on the counter behind the old control panel and we can’t even see the other half of the counter.  It looks like Jim built so many screens they just kept having to add more and more monitors to show them all. — Oh.  I know that Jim didn’t create all these screens, but he did help acclimate the Control Room operators to using computers so that when the evolution to a completely computerized system did arrive, they were ready for it.

Great work Jim Cave!  Thank you for all you have done for the Electric Company in Oklahoma.  You have made a lasting difference that will carry forward to the next generation of Control Room Operators.  I don’t just mean by giving Life to PI.  Your positive attitude in times of stress to the times of boredom have blessed everyone that ever knew you.

I for one am grateful to have met and worked with a True Power Plant Man such as yourself.

Crack in Power Plant Armor leads to Gaping Hole in Logic

Sometimes when something is written on paper, it becomes carved in stone (I should copyright that phrase — oh.  as soon as I click “Publish” I will).  I saw a flaw in Power Plant logic one day in November 1994.  Corporate Headquarters for the Electric Company in Oklahoma had decided that they needed very clear job descriptions for their Job Announcement program.  We had just completed a downsizing a few months earlier and two electricians were asked to determine what prerequisites someone would need to be able to do their jobs.  My first thought was… “Is that really a smart way to go about this?”  Just think about it….  You are asking someone who just survived a downsizing to determine what it would take to replace that person with someone else…. Can you see the flaw in this logic?

It was decided that in order to be hired as an electrician, you had to have the following prerequisites:   A technical degree in an electrical field.  A minimum of five years experience as an industrial electrician.  Have a technical knowledge of how to walk on water.  Able to swing from tall buildings using a four size 2 conductor cable.  Have extensive experience bending conduit.  Able to work in confined space manholes.  Can bend a one inch diameter stainless steel rod with bare hands.  Black Belt in Six Sigma.  Able to explain the meaning of each color on a resistor.  Not afraid of heights.  Willing to shovel coal. — Yep.  that’s what it requires to do my job.

I knew right away this wasn’t going to be good.  We would never find someone who can both walk on water and was willing to shovel coal.  If we ever had to replace an electrician, it would be darn impossible.  This wasn’t only true for electricians.  Every type of job in the company was given similar treatment.  I had been an electrician for 11 years at that point, and I didn’t even meet the minimum qualifications.  If I had left the company and tried to apply for a job at our plant as an electrician, I would have been turned away at the door.

Whatever minimum requirements were written down did not only apply to outside applicants.  This was required of employees applying through the internal Career Announcement Program (CAP) as well.  In other words, I never would have been able to join the electric shop from the Labor Crew as I did in 1983, with only a scant understanding of what it takes to be an electrician.  It wasn’t until a few years later that this occurred to anyone.  The minimum requirements were relaxed a little.  That was when the training program was put in place to take High  School graduates and above and allow them to train at the plant for a particular skill as I described in the post:  “Power Plant Train Wreck“.  The rest of the company had to live with their own minimum requirements.

The results of asking the employees what the minimum requirements should be for their own jobs, HR had painted themselves into a corner.  I knew why they did this.  It was because they had lawsuits in the past where someone was hired over someone else, and they thought they were more qualified for the job.  So, specific requirements for each job needed to be created…. Actually…. I think this is the opposite of what should have been done.

If I had my druthers, I would have approached this from the opposite direction… let me continue with my story and you will see why.

I started getting my degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) in 1997 at Oklahoma State University.  I was going to graduate from the business school in May 2001.  In the fall of 2000, I had only 6 credit hours (or two more classes) left.  I had started in 1999 applying for IT jobs in our company.  Many times I was asked by people in the IT department to apply for specific job openings.  I had worked with a lot of them, and they would have liked for me to work for them.

Unfortunately, at that time, here was the minimum requirements for a Software Developer:  You had to have one or more of the following:  A Bachelor Degree in Computer Science… OR Bachelor Degree in MIS with at least 9 hours of computer languages (I had the 9 hours of computer languages)… OR Bachelor Degree in a business or technically related field with 18 hours of computer science courses including 9 hours of computer languages…. OR Associate Degree in Computer Science with 9 hours of computer languages and 2 years of software development experience….. OR 8 years of directly related experience such as development in C, C++, ABAP, Visual Basic or Cobol.

Software Developer Career Announcement

Software Developer Career Announcement — Yeah.  I kept a copy….  Actually  I have a stack of about 20 job announcements where I applied.

It was that last requirement that I thought I could use.  Especially since I was well on my way to earning the degree.  I had many years writing code in Visual Basic and C.  I had taken a Cobol class already, and studied ABAP (which is used in SAP) on my own.  So, along with almost having my degree and working with IT for more than 8 years, I applied for these jobs.  Every time I did, HR would kick the application back to me and explain that I didn’t meet the minimum requirements so I was not able to be considered for the position.  Not until I had my degree in my hands.  The HR Director said that all the work I had done with IT didn’t count because I was doing it as an electrician.  She said her hands were tied.

In November 2000 the University had a career fair for students applying for IT or business careers.  So, I attended it.  It was in a large room where each of the companies had setup a booth and you walked around to each booth as the various companies explained why it would be nice to go work for their company.  They explained their benefits, and when they were done, they asked you for your resume (prounounced “rez U May” in case you’re wondering) if you were interested.

Before the career fair, I had gone to lectures on how to go through the interview process, and I had read books about how to create a good resume.  I had bought books on these subjects and read them.  Here are three books that came in useful in my job hunt:

Books to help find jobs by Marin Yates

Books to help find jobs by Martin Yate.  I attended his lecture about how to go through the interview process

So, here I was at a job fair dressed in a nice suit I had bought in Oklahoma City at a high end Suit store.  I had studied what color shoes, belt and tie to wear.  I had a stack of my carefully designed resumes in hand.  My wife Kelly had given me a professional haircut the night before, and I had even washed behind my ears.

I had quickly changed into my suit in the bathroom in the office area at the Power Plant.  I quickly took the elevator down to the ground floor and stole out to the parking lot to drive the 30 miles to the Job Fair.  No one saw me leave, except Denise Anson, the receptionist.

I made my way around each aisle of booths, carefully considering each company.  I was not really interested in working as a consultant where I had to do a lot of travelling.  After all, I had a family.  I gave my resume to many companies that day, and later I had interviews with many of them.  It felt very strange as a 40 year old acting as a kid in school handing resumes to companies.  I really just wanted to stay at the Electric Company where I had worked for the past 19 years.

Then I spied the booth I was really curious to visit.  It was the Electric Companies booth.  The company where I worked.  I saw a group of students walk up to the booth and the young man from HR began his speech about why it would be great to work for the Electric Company.  I stood toward the back of the small crowd and listened.  It was weird hearing him tell us about the benefits of working for the company.

The Director of HR was standing next to him.  She was the person that kept rejecting all of my job applications through the internal job announcement program.  I waited patiently thinking… I could come up with better reasons for working for the best Electric Company in the world.  He never mentioned once that the best employees you would ever find in the entire world worked just 30 miles north on Hwy 177 at the big Power Plant on the hill.  That would have been the first thing I would have mentioned.

I waited until the young man completed his speech and then asked the students if they would like to give him their resumes.  I stood there, not moving, but smiling at the young man from HR.  After everyone else left, the man turned to me and asked me if I would like to give him my resume.  I replied as I handed him my resume by saying, “I’ll give you my resume, but I don’t think you can hire me.”

He replied, “Sure we can.” as he glanced down at my resume.  I continued, “See… I already work for the company.”  The young man brightened up and said, “I thought I recognized you!  You work at the Power Plant just north of here!”  I said, “Yeah.  You were the leader at my table during the Money Matters class.”  “Yeah!  I remember that!” He replied.

“Sure, we can hire you!” He replied.  I said, “No.  I don’t think you can.  You see.  I don’t meet the minimum requirements.”  Then I turned my gaze to the Director of HR who was now staring off into space…  The gaping hole in logic had suddenly become very apparent.  She replied very slowly…. “No… I don’t think we can hire you.”  The young man (I think his name is Ben), looked confused, so I explained….

“You see Ben… you can take resumes from all of these college students and offer them a job for when they graduate, but since I already work for the company, I have to have my degree already in my hand before I meet the requirements.  I can go to any other booth in this room and have an interview and be offered a job, but I can’t find an IT job in the company where I work because I don’t meet the minimum requirements.  Seems kind of odd.  Doesn’t it?”

I continued…. “Not only that, but the Electric Company has paid for all my classes to get my degree and 75% of my books.  I have only 6 more hours after December, and I can’t find a job with my own company.  I will probably have to go to another company that is guaranteeing a job when I graduate.  Does that make sense?”

Application to be reimbursed for summer courses in 1999

Application to be reimbursed for summer courses I took in 1999 — notice how cheap school was back then.  Also notice that I crammed 10 hours into one session of summer school.

The HR Director was still staring off into space.  She knew as soon as I opened my mouth who I was.  She had personally signed each rejection letter to me.

So, what had happened?  It had happened a few years earlier when the employees were asked what the minimum requirements should be for someone to be hired for their jobs.  That led them down a path of closed doors instead of opening up opportunities.

Here is what I would have done instead… I would have done what other companies do… Minimum Requirements:  “Team Player.  Able to work well with others.  Demonstrated an ability to learn new skills.”  — Who wouldn’t want an employee like that?  Sure.  Add some “Desired attributes” on the end like: Able to bend conduit.  Able Walk on Water, etc.

I had spent about an hour at the career fair handing my resume to potential employers before I left.  I drove back to the plant.  On the way back to the plant I was having this sinking feeling that I was not going to be able to stay with the Electric Company.  I can’t describe how sad I was at this thought.

I couldn’t just stick around at the plant hoping that once I had a degree in my hands that I would be able to move into the IT department.  For all I knew, our own plant manager could have been telling HR that I couldn’t leave the plant because I was the only person that worked inside the precipitator.  I had been flown around the country to interview with different companies who were now offering me jobs.  Those offers wouldn’t still be there if I waited until I graduated, so I had to make a decision soon.

I knew that the Plant Manager Bill Green kept asking the Supervisor over Maintenance about my degree because Jim Arnold would ask me from time-to-time, “What’s that degree you’re getting again?”  I would say, “Management Information Systems” in the Business College.  Jim would go back to Bill and say, “Oh.  You don’t have to worry about Kevin leaving.  No one wants someone with that degree” (Yeah.  Heard that from someone that heard it first hand).

When I arrived back at the plant, I walked in the entrance and hurried to the elevator.  I waved at Denise as I quickly walked by the receptionist window and quickly went into the men’s room to change back into my jeans and tee-shirt and work boots.  No one else saw me.  I returned to work with Ray Eberle in the Print Room to work on SAP.  Ray asked me how it went…

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

I told Ray about my adventure and my encounter at the Electric Company booth.  Ray came to the same realization that I had on the way back to the plant… I wasn’t going to be able to stay with the company.  I was going to have to move on…