In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man

Added a new beginning on 11/11/2021

This was originally posted on January 7, 2012

I remember on January 12, 1980 I had decided that November 11, 2011 was going to be a very special day for me.  For almost 32 years I waited for that day to arrive.  If I had been paying more attention at the time, I should have realized that it was going to be a day walking down memory lane as well as a day of death.

My roommate, Mark Sarmento in the private dorm “Mark Twain’s Residence Hall” at the University of Missouri in Columbia had just returned from his Christmas holiday and he had quite the tale to tell me as soon as he walked in the door.  He told me a story about how his friend had told him over the holiday that he kept seeing the numbers 1111 (eleven eleven) or 111 (one eleven).  It kept showing up at the oddest places.  Too often to just be a coincidence.  Then a few days later after Mark’s friend had told him about seeing all the ones, he died suddenly when he had a seizure while taking a shower.

Mark had just been to his friends funeral the day before on (get this) January 11 (1/11).  Mark returned from his vacation and now Mark was seeing the numbers 1111 and 111 everywhere.  I have to admit that over the next semester, Mark had some very interesting encounters with these two numbers.  Even to the point where he was on flight 111 when he went home for spring break.  He wondered what this could mean.

To me, I knew what it meant.  I had decided that day in January 1980 that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was going to find Mark Sarmento and give him a call on November 11, 2011 at 11:11am (or 11/11/11 11:11).  You can see now why I was looking forward to that day.  It went off without a hitch.  I called his company and told the receptionist that I was an old friend of Mark’s and I have been waiting 32 years to call him on this day.  I had called him at 10:11 since he was in the Eastern Time Zone while I was in the Central  Time Zone.  He called me back an hour later, at 11:11.

Two days later, a power plant man sent me an email informing me that Sonny Karcher had died on November 11, 2011 (11/11/11).  I wondered if it was at the same time I was talking to Mark on the phone.  I had met my roommate Mark Sarmento exactly 111 days after I had met Sonny Karcher.  Another interesting coincidence.

It wasn’t my idea to go work at a power plant for a summer job in 1979.  My dad called me in my dorm room one night during the Spring Semester at Oklahoma University in Norman Oklahoma before I decided to go back to Missouri.  I had figured I would go back to working in a restaurant during the summer as that had been my “go to” job in the past.

Dad said that a fellow Deacon from the Catholic Church in Stillwater, who was the assistant plant manager had asked him if I would be interested in being a summer help at a new power plant the electric company was building 25 miles north of Stillwater.  Without giving it much thought, I told him, “Sure”.  Not really knowing at the time that my simple answer to that question sent me on a journey that lasted for over 22 years.

The next Monday after school was over, I took my mom’s station wagon and drove north out of Stillwater on Hwy 177.  It wasn’t until I topped the hill just before Bill’s corner that I realized that this was actually happening.  I had figured up to that point that someone was going to change their mind, and I would go back to Sirloin Stockade and work for my old manager Ken Low.  But, “No.”  This was actually happening.

Now, 42 years later, I cherish the memories of the days I spent working at the plant as a summer help during the summers of 1979 through 1982, when I became a full time Janitor at the plant.  I later worked my way into the Labor Crew, and eventually ending up in the Electric Shop, where I was an electrician for 18 years.

When I heard the sad news of the death of my very first mentor at the plant, Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11 (November 11, 2011), I wished I had been able to attend his funeral.  I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny.  All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something.  Here are some of the first and last things I remember:

When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, The first two mechanics I worked with were Sonny and Larry Riley.  They taught me how things worked at the plant at that time.  Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.

The first job we were to work on was on my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs. We were supposed to work on a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit.  Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did recognize the word “pump”.

It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us.  So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour.  When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time).  We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.

We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running.  So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck.  We drove back to the plant and took the morning break. That’s when I learned that a check valve keeps the water from running backward down a pipe.

About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize):   Two ¾ box ends (pronounced “three quarter box ends”), One four foot soft choker, a ¾ ton come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a large flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make the list sound legitimate).  – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.

So, I went to the tool room and when I saw Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time) I wondered if he was perchance the large flat bastard file that was on my list.  I thought maybe when I came to “Flat Bastard File” on my list, he would fly into a rage and pick me up by the neck and throw me to the ground (unlikely, I know, but at that time, I didn’t know what to expect).  I told him, “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the punch line of the joke…).

Well.  Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time and the gate was actually a window in A foreman’s office next to the tool room).  — not the regular gate that has been in the tool room for the past 35 years.

So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things).  Well, you know the rest of this part of the story.  These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools.  I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years until it finally disintegrated as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.

So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair.  When we returned, we went to lunch.  During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.

He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property.  So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked him if he was looking for a job.

Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then.  Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant.  The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.

After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know….  There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open.  We cleaned it up and put it back together.  When we were finished, we took our afternoon break.  After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe.  When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards.  A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.

I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet and that was what a typical non-educated summer help usually did, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out.  I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.  See the post “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.

The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve.  This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story — See the post: “Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.

I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else.   He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there.  So he left the plant.

He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind.  He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass?  Well, that’s what I want to do.  Mow grass.  So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”

After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.

During the summer of 2018, while I went through Stillwater on my way to Columbia Missouri to attend my 40th High School Reunion, I took a couple of days visiting friends from the plant.  I went to the Morrison Cemetery hoping to find Sonny Karcher’s grave.  I was not able to find it.  I searched other nearby cemeteries including the Sumner cemetery close to his house, and I was never able to find his grave.

Regardless, I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now…..  The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval and points out that they have a lot of green pastures as he lets him through the gates.

Sonny Karcher

Sonny Karcher

2 responses

  1. Wichita Genealogist | Reply

    I visited his Find-A-Grave memorial. The memorial included a lot of things I didn’t realize about him.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. He will be remembered.

    Liked by 1 person

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