It’s 5 degrees on a late-February morning, and an OPPD line crew out of the Blair Service Center is setting up a bucket truck in the middle of a frozen bean field. An out of service line that fed an abandoned farm hangs on a weathered pole.
Bone-chilling wind, typical in February, sweeps across the field. A small grove and the remains of a farm building offer a little break from the wind, but not enough.
And there is no protection from the wind where Derek Moore is headed. The youngest member of the crew, he gears up and then scurries his way to the top of the pole to the transformer.
Steve Neuverth, the working line crew leader and most senior member of the crew, rolls up the wire removed from the pole and stops now and then, watching from below.
“This is great experience for him,” Neuverth said, his eyes trained on the top of the pole. “These aren’t hot (live wires), and this (weather) is the stuff he’ll be working in. The hands don’t want to work as well when it gets this cold.”
Neuverth and Moore represent bookends on the line technician spectrum, a profession recognized on April 18, Lineworker Appreciation Day.
Neuverth has been doing this job longer than anyone else at OPPD. Moore was in the class of most recent hires at the utility and is in his apprenticeship, meaning he must complete four years of on-the-job training, class work and a series of tests before he becomes a journeyman.
Neuverth, the crew leader, was hired in 1986. He’s OPPD’s longest-tenured lineman.
The Blair crew Neuverth leads has been removing hardware from the poles and sending transformers over to OPPD’s Substation department to be refurbished and then sent to the warehouse at the Elkhorn Service Center.
Supply chain issues have made it harder for all utilities to get transformers, and Neuverth’s crew is helping OPPD recycle those that are no longer in use.
Neuverth, tall and thin, sporting what looks like a beach tan but is actually the result of more days spent outside than inside, knows he won’t be doing this job forever.
Though he may be in the twilight of his career, his passion for the job hasn’t waned one iota.
He would be the first to tell you the work of a line technician takes its toll on the body, but only if you ask first. Over the last few years he’s seen more and more of his friends – guys he’s worked with for years – hanging up their tool belts and heading off into retirement.
His wife, Kara, knows what the job means to him, though she looks forward to when she doesn’t have to worry about him on the job.
“It never goes away,” she said. “I try not to think about it, I don’t even like seeing pictures of him up on a pole.”
She has two quick stories that she said illustrate how much Steve loves his job. The first one: He chose a mutual aid job working an ice storm in Watertown, South Dakota, over a trip to Las Vegas with some other couples.
“So yeah, Vegas vacation versus ice storm, he picks the storm.”
The other example didn’t really have a chance of flying.
“The other time, a mutual aid opportunity came up just after the birth of one of our two sons, and he gave me that look, like ‘Well, what do you think?’ I just shot him back a look, and he didn’t go on that one.”
He isn’t climbing so much anymore, and he knows the clock is ticking. He thinks about retirement, though he tries not to.
“I was the last hire at OPPD before they started requiring a degree,” he said. “My roommate at the time, Tony Anliker, was hired a month after me and he had to go to line school. Tony just retired last year.”
Neuverth didn’t start out as a line technician. He was originally hired to work in OPPD’s underground department. But he knew he wanted to ascend from below ground and work high up on the lines.
And that’s just what he did. He’s been working on the lines about 35 years.
Moore wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduating from Millard West. A semester at the University of Nebraska Omaha wasn’t for him. So what’s next, he asked himself.
He recalled a conversation with a much older cousin at a family gathering not long before graduation. He kept thinking about what the cousin said: He told Moore about working 35-plus years as a line technician for MidAmerican Energy, across the river in Iowa.
The relative talked up the job and the reasons Moore should consider the career. Those reasons included great benefits and the chance to work outside – those were big pluses to Moore, especially the outdoors part. The cousin also mentioned helping people in need; at UNO, Moore had considered some kind of career in the medical field. And finally, Moore would have the chance to make good money right away, his cousin said.
And then there was the “cool” factor.
“I’d see those trucks all over as a kid and I thought that looked pretty fun,” Moore said.
The more he thought about it, the more it started to make sense to him. Maybe this was the job that fit him. So he started taking classes in Norfolk at Northeast Community College’s utility line program. That led to an internship with OPPD working out of the Elkhorn Service Center.
Moore loved the hands-on experience he gained, doing things like working with de-engerized equipment, or building elbows to attach on the ends of underground cables. The more he did, the clearer it became to Moore that he not only liked the work, but that OPPD was where he wanted to land.
After graduation from Northeast, Moore got a job in the Streetlighting department at OPPD. About a year later, he was hired as a line technician apprentice.
“I was glad for the internship at Elkhorn because I got to know a lot of the guys out there,” Moore said. “And that made the transition easier when I came over here to work with the linemen.”
Talk to a lineman and you’ll hear about the tight bond, the “brotherhood,” they share. Neuverth knows that is one of the things he’ll miss most when the time comes to hang up his utility belt. Every line technician does.
It’s something Moore is embracing, and it didn’t take him long to start building those bonds, to enter into that brotherhood. After work he spends time on the dock talking with the other apprentices. He and his colleagues text one another at night, too.
“We are all asking each other ‘What did you get to do today?’ and then you hear about something you haven’t done before and get a sense of what that will be like,” Moore said.
Their bond doesn’t end with work. If someone needs help moving on a weekend, Moore said, they help each other out. Neuverth attests to that willingness to help.
“I called some of the guys up to help me move a few times,” Neuverth said. “And one time it wasn’t just couches and stuff, but farm equipment.”
Moore said he’s learned a lot of little tips on how to do things better and smarter from working under Neuverth. It is clear he looks up to the older lineman.
When asked if he ever saw himself being a mentor, Neuverth choked up.
“I’ve always had a lot of passion about this job,” Neuverth said. “And it’s good to be able to … it won’t be long, you know …”
“It’s good to have people who care about you, and I can learn from him,” Moore said, stepping in to finish his crew leader’s thought.
“We didn’t get to do it for a long time, especially up here in the rural, because we didn’t get many apprentices,” Neuverth said. “But it feels good to teach them things, so they don’t struggle.”
It is clear Neuverth wants Moore to thrive in the job, like a father looking after a son. Moore is closer in age to Neuverth’s two sons than to Neuverth.
“I haven’t thought a lot about mentoring,” Neuverth said. “But that’s what I’ve been doing for Derek, setting him up in situations where he succeeds and showing him the best ways to do things and do them smarter. Like how to set up your truck and equipment and position yourself in the bucket, because this job is hard on your body.
“But it is time and it’s good to see these young guys in these roles, because these trades will keep going and going.”
“Someday I’ll be doing that,” Moore said.
“And that’s part of the brotherhood, teaching each other and learning from each other,” Neuverth said.
Neuverth doesn’t know when he will retire. He’s in no hurry.
Eventually, his trusty crew leader truck, a Ford F-350 – with the “155 ELK” sticker – will go to someone else.
Neuverth has driven it for years. It belonged to his old foreman and mentor, Dean Peck, when they worked at the former Irvington Center, before it became Metropolitan Community College’s Applied Technology Center.
“All your memories are in your truck,” he said.
Retirement won’t mean taking it easy though. Instead of replacing poles in the late winter, he will be thinking about getting his discer ready. Summer thunderstorms won’t leave him wondering about outages. Instead, his first concern will be hail damage to his crops.
Neuverth farms 300 acres. He may have been born in the city, but he dreamed of farming. On his farm outside of Bennington he grows corn, beans and hay and raises cattle.
“My mom was from the farm and dad was from town, and as soon as I got a chance I’d be on the farm. Grandpa was my mentor,” he said. “I learned it all from him.”
Moore’s last day with Neuverth’s Blair crew was March 3. He is now at his next posting, the Elkhorn Service Center.
But Neuverth had at least one last lesson for Moore before he left the Blair Center.
“Make sure you don’t take the bad home with you,” Neuverth said. “Try your best to leave your work at work. That’s why it helps talking with the guys after work.”
More wisdom passed down from one generation of the brotherhood to the next.
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