by | Apr 17, 2023

Junior Curtis hangs up his hooks after a long co-op career

Byron “Junior” Curtis never thought the job he landed back in 1973 would lead to a 50-year career. He was just looking for work. On Feb. 16, the 73-year-old Se-Ma-No Electric Cooperative lineman hung up his hooks after a long and eventful five decades with the cooperative.

“When I went to work out here it was just a place to work, you know? It was a job and I needed it,” he says. “They hired me to work on the right of way. It wasn’t very long our line superintendent told me to go get some hooks and a belt.”

Junior bought a used set of climbing hooks and a telephone lineman belt for $20. He recalls the first time he climbed a pole for the co-op: “Of course I fell down the first pole. From then on I got better. It was just free climbing. We would grab ahold with your hands behind the pole and start climbing up. When you got to the top you belted off and hoped your hooks didn’t kick out.”

He’s lost track of how many poles he’s climbed over the years, but does know that in one year when the co-op kept records he climbed 100 poles. The most he did in one day was 13. “There were a lot of times when we would build a three-phase bank and we would go up the pole and stay until lunchtime. Then we would come down, eat and then go back up,” he recalls.

Pole climbing was a way of life for Junior and his fellow linemen, at least until the 1990s when bucket trucks made their debut at the Mansfield-based co-op. “When I came here in 2018 he was 68 years old. I was told Junior was one of the best climbers we had,” says Se-Ma-No Electric Manager Dan Sisco.

Linemen there still climb a lot of poles when the terrain is too rough to get a truck where it needs to be. Junior was still able to climb last fall when the co-op practiced pole-top rescue.

A lot has changed during Junior’s career. He can remember using jackhammers or blasting holes into the tough rock in order to set a pole. These days carbide-toothed bits turned by digger-derrick trucks grind the rock into powder.

Linemen in the early days learned on the job rather than at a school like State Technical College of Missouri or Ozark Technical Community College. Veteran linemen passed on their skills and taught the new ones how to stay safe in a dangerous trade. Surprisingly, Junior says he was never injured on the job except for the inevitable cuts and scrapes. “All I can tell you is we just had to watch it,” Junior says. “I tried to think ahead what’s going to happen and that kind of helped me.”

He did suffer some painful wasp stings and dog bites. “One year I got bit three times,” he says.

While Junior says he enjoyed the outdoor work, one thing he won’t miss is the many ice storms. “I always worried about them and what’s it going to do,” he says. “A lot of times it didn’t amount to nothing and you would feel better then.”

He says the worst in his memory happened in 1996. He remembers the ice being so thick that it formed a sheet on the chain-link fence surrounding the Seymour substation.

“It came in around the 10th of November and run through Thanksgiving,” Junior says of the outages the devastating storm caused. “I had some contractors I was running. Their wives brought up turkey on Thanksgiving for us to eat. I couldn’t believe that. We had turkey out there in the ice.”

After hours, the co-op would forward its phones to whatever lineman was on call for the evening. Junior’s wife, Colleen, took a lot of outage calls. Often Junior would return home after repairing a line only to find out another trouble call had come in.

Junior says he’s been working since he was 12 years old when his neighbors hired him to put up hay on their farm. He never considered quitting until he reached 50 years at the co-op. “It just felt like I owed it,” he says. “I wanted to work and I was able to do it. I just stayed with it. It’s one of the best jobs I think there is.”

He grew up in the community of Coldspring, “just a wide spot in the road.” Like a lot of people his age, he can remember living without electricity. He recalls his parents putting cardboard on the walls to block the wind. Heat came from a wood cookstove and water for laundry and baths was heated in a large iron kettle. Entertainment was listening to the “Grand Ole Opry” on Saturday nights using a battery-powered radio.

Later the family moved to a house that did have electricity. “It had a sink but didn’t have running water. Dad put it in. We didn’t get a TV until 1958 or ’59. Channel 3 and 10, that’s all we got. And we didn’t really get 10. We could hear it but couldn’t get it.”

The power went out a lot, Junior says, forcing the family to resort to coal-oil lanterns and candles for light. “We were on White River,” he adds with a laugh, poking fun at the neighboring electric cooperative.

With the retirement of Kevin Finley in 2022 with 47 years of service and now Junior with 50 years, Se-Ma-No Electric has lost a lot of experience. “We are losing a lot of knowledge,” admits Hayden Dennis, Se-Ma-No’s operations manager. “When the lines went out Junior could tell you pretty much where to start looking. And where it’s at on the system. And how to get there.”

Now retired, Junior says he wouldn’t mind going back to those simpler times. He’s even asked the convenience store in Mansfield to stock some of his favorite candy bars from his youth, with mixed results — most they’ve never heard of. He plans to spend his retirement working in his two gardens, hunting and “grabbing” suckers out of the clear-flowing streams nearby.

He admits changing times may have influenced his decision to retire. Se-Ma-No Electric, like a lot of electric co-ops, is getting ready to move lineworker work orders from paper forms to iPads. “I’m no computer man,” Junior says with a smile. “I wouldn’t even know how to turn one on.”

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