On to New Adventures
Wasco Electric Cooperative operations manager calls it a career after 37 years
By Andrew Cutler
Casey McCleary comes from a long line of linemen. His father, uncle, and brother were linemen. He has a son who has joined the industry as a lineman, and he has nephews in the business.
“It’s pretty big in our family,” says Casey, Wasco Electric Cooperative operations manager.
While Casey has plenty of relatives to carry on the family tradition, he is coming to the end of the line with his time in the industry. After 37 years—the first 11 as a journeyman lineman and the last 26 as the operations manager—Casey is retiring.
“It’s been a great job, it really has,” Casey says. “It’s had its moments, of course, just like any job, right?”
As operations manager for Wasco Electric Cooperative, which covers 5,000 square miles in five counties, the heart of Casey’s job is to make sure when any of the cooperative’s 3,000 member-owners flip a light switch or plug in a piece of machinery, there is power.
Getting Into the Business
Originally from Gresham, Casey went through an apprenticeship program in the construction trade and worked in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana prior to arriving in The Dalles in 1983. He says his plans didn’t include spending 37 years in the Columbia River Gorge.
“There was a downturn in the economy in 1983 and there weren’t many jobs available,” he says. “There was a journeyman opening at Wasco Electric in The Dalles. We were going to come for one or two years, and then we got here and decided we liked it. We’ve been here ever since.”
Casey didn’t get into the business intending to work his way up to a management position. But when the position opened, he thought the skills he learned as a lineman could be helpful as operations manager.
“I thought I had the experience from the outside that I could bring into the position,” he says. “There were some things that I thought needed to be done differently. I thought with that knowledge I could facilitate some of that change.”
But his family—especially those who were linemen—was skeptical of the move. Casey says he wasn’t uninvited to Christmas dinner for moving from the unionized world of linemen to the un-unionized management position, but his family offered some words of advice.
“They told me to not forget the crews and remember where you came from,” he says.
Upgrading the System
During Casey’s time as operations manager, the cooperative has made significant upgrades to the system, including substation upgrades, system reclosures, upgrading regulators, and as many as 10 distribution circuit rebuilds.
Casey says the bulk of the major system improvements started to take shape in 1996 and 1997. The improvements made the system more reliable, therefore cutting down on prolonged system outages.
“That’s probably one of the things that I strive for the most—system reliability,” he says. “There used to be way more outages, extended outages, and more frequent outages than what we have now.”
Casey is proud of how far the cooperative has come in improving its system. Looking back, however, he says when he assumed the management position, he was not prepared for the task of mapping out how to improve the cooperative’s system.
“I went inside thinking, ‘I’m just going to run the line crews’ and realized later on that there was way more to the job than meets the general eye,” he says.
Flood Tests Cooperative, System
While improving system reliability is a goal of any cooperative, Mother Nature can throw curveballs. Casey has had several curveballs thrown his way in 26 years, but two stand out in his mind for the way they affected WEC and its members.
The first was the floods of February 1996, when the Deschutes and John Day rivers—along with the little streams and creeks that flow into those rivers— flooded, leaving much of Wasco Electric Cooperative’s territory underwater.
“They called it a 100-year flood or a century flood,” he says. “We had like 80% of our system out at one point.”
Casey says getting crews around the territory to reset power poles and reroute lines was a challenge with so many washed-out roads.
“Just getting to stuff was kind of a major event,” he says. “The flooding was pretty widespread.”
Rebuilding from the flooding lasted approximately three weeks. For cooperative employees, it was all hands on deck.
“We brought in crews from other utilities and contract crews to help us,” Casey says. “It kept us busy, that’s for sure.”
Wildfires Burn Summer of 2018
Casey and the cooperative were put to the test during the summer of 2018 when nearly 250,000 acres in Wasco and Sherman counties were consumed by wildfires.
“We had, it seems, like three months’ worth of fires,” Casey says. “We bounced from one to the other trying to make sure our system stayed intact as best we could. It pretty much consumed the summer.”
Wasco Electric Cooperative crews replaced nearly 200 power poles and miles of burned and damaged line caused by multiple blazes throughout the cooperative’s service territory. It was a big mission for the co-op’s five linemen. For nearly a month, the linemen fought fires, dug holes and set power poles and line for 18 hours straight, then went home for a quick rest before returning.
“The idea is to restore services as quickly as possible to as many people as you can,” Casey says.
Casey says he remains proud of how the cooperative and its people responded in the face of the emergency.
“It’s always been that way,” he says. “The employees always step up to whatever is needed at the time.”
Nothing Stays the Same
The biggest changes Casey has experienced in his career are the advancements in technology. The cooperative is transitioning to using digital maps stored on tablets and computers—a far cry from Casey’s first days as operations manager.
“When I first walked into the office as the operations manager, there were no computers,” he says. “There were none for personnel. There was a main billing computer and a few terminals for the billing department.”
Casey says as the cooperative has adopted new technology, the hard work and rewards of a lineman career have not changed.
“Those techniques haven’t really changed,” he says. “The crews still go out, set poles and build power lines. It’s made our jobs better, easier and safer, but not changed them.”
Life After the Cooperative
Casey and his wife, Shawn, have three children and five grandchildren. In retirement, Casey plans to spend time visiting family in a recently purchased RV and pickup.
“One of our daughters lived in Arizona,” he says. “We want to travel down there. We want to go back to Yellowstone again, and Montana. We just want to do some sightseeing.”