Grayson Rural Electric Maintenance Leadman Richard Easton. (Photo by Julie Rhea Lewis)
Grayson Rural Electric Maintenance Leadman Richard Easton. (Photo by Julie Rhea Lewis)

Kentucky’s Maysville Community & Technical College launched a lineman training program at its Rowan County campus less than three years ago, and it’s been going strong ever since.

That’s thanks in no small part to Richard Easton, a maintenance leadman in the Rowan and Elliot County areas of Grayson Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation’s service area. Easton worked in hot line construction for four years before joining the Grayson, Kentucky-based cooperative as a construction lead 27 years ago.

With the typically casual lineman’s shrug, Easton downplays his work with the young linemen at the training school.

“When I have some free time, I stop by. I’ll show them some techniques,” he says.

But Easton’s contributions go well beyond that, according to Mark Lambert, the college’s lineman program coordinator.

“Richard’s a big help to us,” Lambert says, especially when it comes to introducing new students to what might be called the philosophy of line work and the work ethic of the line crew.

“He’ll tell them that you’re part of a four-man crew, and if you’re late or you call in sick and miss a day, that puts a strain on the rest of your crew, and you’re not going to last long.”

A dozen or so students usually sign up for the nine-week training program, and most of them are in their late teens or early 20s. Easton, who’s 55, says he provides a little motivation early on.

“Especially when they first start, I’ll show them how to climb a pole, and I’ll climb with them,” he says. “And I’m a lot older than them, so when a 50-something-year-old man straps the hooks on, they figure if that old man can do it, maybe I can do this kind of work too. It gives them some incentive.”

Weeding Out the Faint of Heart

Easton was about the same age as the students he now guides when he started working on electric lines. He’d grown up on a farm, one served by what’s now Fleming-Mason Energy Cooperative in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, and was considering his options when a line-construction contractor asked him if he wanted a job.

“The guy comes to me, and he says, ‘I’m needing someone to drive a digger truck and haul poles. What experience do you have?’ Well, on the farm, you drive trucks a lot, so he took me on. Then I decided I wanted to be a lineman, so I started putting on hooks. And within a year, I was up in the bucket doing hot work.”

Power line training programs were not an option in those long-ago days, Easton recalls. “Just on-the-job training.”

Programs like the one Maysville Community & Technical College opened in 2015 provide a valuable service, he adds, both to the students and the utilities ready to employ them.

“Before, when the co-op hired a new lineman, it was a year before you could tell if they could actually climb poles or not,” Easton says. “He worked on the ground, and then when he’d been there all that time, if he found he was scared of heights, it was too late. You’d invested all this time, and you find out he can’t do this kind of work.”

Lambert’s line training program at the school’s Rowan Campus in Morehead, Kentucky, boasts a field of poles standing as a challenge to its new students. And Lambert makes sure to weed out the faint of heart early on.

“The second day of school, I put our boys up 40 feet in the air,” he says. “So you’ve got two days to decide whether you want to be a lineman or not. We don’t waste a second down here.”

Those who wash out of the climbing challenge can focus on getting their commercial driver’s license through the program, rerouting their career plans into equipment operation or nonclimbing line technicians, he says. “But boy, most of them can climb like squirrels.”

As for those practice poles, Easton and Grayson Rural Electric had a hand in them too.

“They came down and set five poles they donated for us,” Lambert says. “They’ve gone above and beyond.”

The co-op and its maintenance lineman aren’t the only ones who have helped out, he adds. Investor-owned utilities, municipal systems, and contractors have donated materials and staff time. When the owner of a contracting company retired and closed his business recently, Lambert says, he donated a trailer full of equipment and materials.

“I’ve got a building down here, and that sucker is completely full,” he says. “I’ve probably got over $100,000 in hotsticks, insulators, transformers, you name it. I couldn’t ask for more support.”

From Football Field to Line Crew

Lambert’s program may be less than 3 years old, but the roots of the professional collaboration underlying it go back nearly four decades. He and Easton, along with some of the other linemen who stop by to train and motivate the students, were high school classmates who played side by side on the school’s football team.

“From when I played football with these boys, it’s just been so much help to me,” Lambert says. “Everybody asks me, ‘How long were you a lineman?’ Well, I’ve never been a lineman. I just played football with guys who are.”

He appreciates his friends making the time to help his students.

“Of course Richard’s busy,” Lambert says. “But he tries to come over every week or so, and he always comes to the rodeo at the end of the class.”

It’s a source of satisfaction for Easton, who remembers what he said when the school was just getting started.

“Mark just called me one day and asked, ‘How do you think a lineman’s school would go?’ I said it’d be a very good thing.”

Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We’re looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at remag@nreca.coop, or you can reach writer John Vanvig directly at johnlvanvig@yahoo.com or 360-624-4595.

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