Utility poles are mounted permanently at the site of the International Lineman's Rodeo near Kansas City, Missouri, so they don't have to be erected and removed in the off-season. (Photo by Denny Gainer)
Utility poles are mounted permanently at the site of the International Lineman’s Rodeo near Kansas City, Missouri, so they don’t have to be erected and removed in the off-season. (Photo by Denny Gainer)

As Dale Warman remembers it, the idea for an electric utility lineman’s rodeo came from … a rodeo.

Warman was a supervisor at Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) in 1984 when he and some utility buddies were speaking at the technical school at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

“Somebody was talking about the rodeo, how the ranchers used to have a rodeo. They felt that was a good way for the ranchers and the hands to improve the skills they do every day. And when they had to compete with each other, they would have to increase those skills,” he says.

From that offhand comment, the International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo was born. It started with a dozen journeyman teams from four companies on a field in Manhattan. Thirty-four years later, it has outgrown seven venues and now attracts more than 1,000 competitors from around the world—the Super Bowl of the trade.

“The whole idea behind this from day one with our model was this is for linemen, about linemen, and by linemen. Nothing else,” says Warman, who is retired from active duty and serves as co-chairman of the rodeo board of directors. “Success lies in the fact that there are no hidden agendas. It was always and has been always for the linemen and their families.”

After two years in Manhattan, the rodeo, then a Kansas-Missouri endeavor, relocated to the training grounds of KCP&L. But it was still financed in the same small-scale manner as a youth soccer league. “A lot of my children and other people’s children would cook hot dogs and hamburgers to buy trophies,” Warman laughs.

Apprentice linemen came on board in 1987, and the field swelled to 235 hopefuls by 1990. In response, the name of the tournament evolved from the Midwest Rodeo to the National Rodeo to the International Rodeo, when entrants from Canada and Great Britain first appeared in 1993.

With that expansion, corporate sponsors became interested and obviated the need for Warman’s kids to labor over a smoky grill, though he points out that volunteers are essential to pulling off the October spectacle.

“There’s no paid salary. The board, all of us, are on our own dime. We travel on our own dime, and we come here on our own dime.”

After bouncing back and forth between vacant land and stockyards, the rodeo has found a permanent home on property owned by the National Agricultural Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas, about 20 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri.

That dedicated land means workers no longer have to put up and pull down poles every year, as they do with other rodeos. In addition to the competition, the rodeo includes a vendor expo and a two-day safety conference that serves a continuing education function for linemen.

“You watch your peers and how they do things. You see tools that you’ve not seen before,” Warman says.

There are no strict guidelines on entries, though most competitors have scored well in regional rodeos in the months before the big event. The competition includes overall winners—the best of the best as scored by volunteer judges—as well as champions in divisions for investor-owned utilities, electric cooperatives, and municipal systems, among several categories. The 2018 event kicks off with the expo and safety conference Oct. 10–12, with the competition on Oct. 13.

From those early days, nothing has warmed Warman’s heart more than watching linemen lend their tools to colleagues who lack the needed equipment for a given event.

“‘You’re competing against me, but take mine.’ That’s just the way it is,” he says. “It’s like a family; I mean a true family. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Once a lineman, always a lineman. I can go anywhere in the country and tell somebody I’m a lineman, and I’ve got a friend.”

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