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Energy news from Omaha Public Power District

75th Anniversary

Video: OPPD retirees reflect on years of service

December 1, 2021 | Wire Staff | OPPD employees, powerful life
Dick Liebentritt 2
Dick Liebentritt, who worked for OPPD from 1961 to 1998, called the utility the “best place anyone could work.”

As OPPD marks its 75th year, we asked a group of retirees to reflect on their time with the utility. They shared highlights, challenges and a timeless love for OPPD’s important mission of providing affordable, reliable and environmentally sensitive energy services, a mission that has bound generations.

A time of growth, a storm to remember

Jerry Krause worked for OPPD for 33 years, from 1970 to 2004. His impact during that time was far-reaching.

After serving the nation during the Vietnam War aboard a nuclear submarine, he joined the utility as an engineer in System Planning. He worked his way up to division manager of System Planning and in 1986 was named division manager of Electric Operations. In this role, he oversaw more than 700 employees in 12 areas, among them the Line Department, Underground, Substation, System Protection, Metering Services, Communications and Operations. During this time, he led restoration efforts after the infamous 1997 snowstorm and the numerous utility improvements that resulted from lessons learned.

Jerry Krause
Jerry Krause led restoration efforts after the 1997 snowstorm and the numerous utility improvements that resulted from lessons learned.

“Our load was growing somewhere between five and seven percent a year,” Krause said. “Omaha kept growing and expanding, and we had a lot of suburbs.” As a result, the utility built a lot of infrastructure in those days.

“Probably the hardest days of being in Electric Ops was the 1997 storm,” Krause added. He worked 222 hours in 11 days, and most other employees put in a lot of overtime, too.

“We had the expectation, this is the career you chose. Our job is to get the customers back in as soon as we can get them back in.”

Krause’s final role, division manager for T&D Strategy & Planning, revolved around regional transmission. He served as OPPD’s representative to the North American Reliability Council and represented the utility on other transmission projects and in dealings with regional power pools. After his retirement in 2004, OPPD again tapped Krause to do some transmission and wind turbine studies, work that impacted the utility’s foray into renewables.

Krause didn’t leave public service when he retired from OPPD. He’s going on 30 years as a Ralston City Council member, where he served several terms as president.

Krause and his wife, Meg, keep busy with their large family, which includes five children and 15 grandchildren. Two of his children work at OPPD: Troy Krause, working crew leader – steamfitter mechanics, and Melissa Keegan, labor relations specialist.

Building a computer network

Joyce Halford taught herself about computers, and her foundational work helped OPPD automate and improve countless systems.

Halford worked for OPPD for nearly 40 years, from 1967 to 2007.

Hired as a keypunch operator in 1967, she was one of the first three women to be named to management positions at OPPD in the mid-1970s. In 1982, Halford accepted a position in the Information Technology Service Center to help support the installation of personal computers. There was no internet, and there were no courses then, so she spent evenings reading manuals and the few PC magazines that were on the market.

joyce halford
Joyce Halford helped configure and install computers throughout the company. She taught herself about computers and had an integral role building the company’s computer system.

“We keypunched all the information for the entire district,” said Halford. “And then, we would actually take the cards into the computer room, and they would process them.”

She helped configure and install computers throughout the company. At the time, there was no corporate network, no Windows interface. Diskettes were used to transfer data from one computer to another. Eventually, areas of the company installed localized systems. In 1991, the internet became an integral part of computing, and in 1996, Halford helped oversee installation of desktop computers with Microsoft Windows (Excel, Word, PowerPoint) and Microsoft servers that allowed sharing of documents across the utility.

In 1992, Halford received the Turner Award of Excellence, a coveted peer-nominated award. One of several nominators said: “She is widely known throughout the company for her technical knowledge, reliability, competency, quick problem-solving and her friendliness toward everyone she comes in contact with, which is practically the entire work force.”

Halford said her biggest challenges came during the October 1997 snowstorm and the year 2000 date rollover. She said employees pulled together for both events, which she said was a hallmark for her peers.

“Working at OPPD is truly an honor,” Halford said. “I felt like the luckiest person in the world to work for a company like that. Everybody always was so good to me.“

At retirement, Halford held the title of Manager – Information Technology Client Services. She was responsible for all corporate operations, including installing and supporting IT servers and desktop commuters, IT Help Desk Data Security and the entire computer network.

Halford and her husband John, have two children, four grandchildren and a great-grandson. Her daughter-in-law Marni Halford is an accounting clerk in Customer Service Operations.

Customer service is 24/7

Mark Purnell understood OPPD’s mission and didn’t do much clock-watching.

Mark Purnell
In retirement, Mark Purnell volunteers at his church and in the community.

Purnell worked for OPPD for nearly 24 years, from 1992 to 2016. He spent his entire career as an account executive, serving some of the largest OPPD customers, including the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Creighton University and Metro Community College.

Purnell, like many others at the utility, fielded calls at all hours of the day when it came to service issues, expansion projects and new technologies.

Whenever he needed answers, other employees were quick to help.

“As a body of people, OPPD employees were well-trained,” Purnell said. “We could take any situation and find a way to work through it.”

Purnell retired in 2016, largely to take care of his ailing wife, Phyllis, who passed away in July. He spends time with his son and his 93-year-old father, as well as volunteering at church and in the community. Currently, he’s working with Lutheran Family Services to resettle Afghan families.

Delivering reliable power

When it comes to how the utility generates electricity, Jon Hansen knows a thing or two

That’s because he had a hand in all of the generating stations, peaking plants and combustion turbine units, as well as the utility’s foray into renewables. Hansen worked for OPPD for nearly 35 years, from 1983 to 2018.

Jon Hansen
Jon Hansen credits the breadth and depth of the OPPD workforce for providing reliable power.

Hansen joined the utility as an engineer in 1983, initially working out of offices at Jones Street Station, a unit inherited from OPPD’s predecessor, Nebraska Power Company.

From there, he worked in plant engineering at Fort Calhoun Station. After a few years, he returned to Production Operations, working at North Omaha Station, Nebraska City Station and Sarpy County Station in several engineering capacities.

He took on a series of leadership roles beginning in 2002: plant manager at North Omaha Station; division manager of Production Operations in 2006; and vice president – Energy Production & Marketing in 2010. During Hansen’s time as a member of the executive team, OPPD expanded wind power and looked toward other renewable options.

“I’m most proud of providing reliable power,” he said of his time at OPPD. “Teams up and down the line were committed to that goal, whatever it took.”

Hansen credits the breadth and depth of the OPPD workforce for providing reliable power, keeping production costs low and focusing on compliance.

“We had a lot of different skillsets, great craftsmanship,” said Hansen. “People were dedicated to their jobs, they took great pride in their work, and they worked around the clock.”

John and his wife, Beth, have four children and two grandchildren.

Protecting systems

Dick Liebentritt worked for OPPD for nearly 37 years, from 1961 to 1998. He’s one of the many engineers who have passed through the utility’s doors, working behind the scenes on important projects, such as designing and protecting the transmission and distribution systems that provide power to homes and businesses.

Dick Liebentritt
Dick Liebentritt, left, and Lou Mrla load a truck with food donated by retirees. The High Voltage Club, composed of OPPD retirees, has collected food at Thanksgiving for local food pantries for as long as they can remember. Photo courtesy of Dick Liebentritt

Liebentritt joined the utility as an assistant engineer in the Substation Department in 1961. He spent the bulk of his career at the 43rd & Leavenworth Streets location in System Protection, including several years as division manager.

“I really enjoyed working in System Protection because you got to know everybody in the company, in all the different areas of the company,” he said.

In the mid-1980s, he moved downtown to serve as division manager- Engineering.

Like many OPPD employees, his work hat was always on. He recalled when a squirrel guard was tested on a transformer in his back yard after the third squirrel in two weeks knocked out his power.

Liebentritt said he still sees many of his former co-workers at High Voltage Club meetings and at other get-togethers.

 Best place anyone could work,” Liebentritt said. “We had picnics, get-togethers at people’s houses, and we all knew each other so well.”

Liebentritt was married 57 years to his wife, Mary, who passed away in 2017. He spends time in Florida and has three daughters and eight grandchildren.

Stay busy, connected

With a combined 75 years of service to OPPD, Debbie and Dean Jensen know a lot about providing electricity to southeast Nebraska, and they built strong relationships that have carried them through retirement.

Dean worked for OPPD for more than 40 years, from 1996 to 2006. He joined OPPD as a utility man in the Line Department and retired as field supervisor – T&D Operations. Debbie’s OPPD career spanned 35 years, from 1978 to 2014. She started as a junior clerk and retired as an electrical service designer.

Debbie Dean Jensen oppd retirees
Debbie and Dean Jensen, foreground, with OPPD retiree Judy McCoy and her husband, Chuck McCoy, on a Segway tour in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy of Debbie Jensen

Dean’s work took him across the service area, building, maintaining and restoring the power lines and all the other necessary equipment. It involved working in the elements, being called out at all hours, and sharing expertise with those coming up through the ranks. As an electrical service designer, Debbie worked with businesses in the metro Omaha area. Their needs also demanded quick attention at all hours of the day.

“It was a great company to work for,” Debbie said, adding that people bent over backward to help get things done. Among their most memorable times were the year 2000 efforts, and the 1991 and 1997 storms.

I liked being around people, seeing them every day. We still hang out with several OPPD retirees, going to lunch, taking trips, and celebrating other milestones,” Debbie said.

Both Jensens have kept busy during retirement. Dean worked several years with L.E. Myers, an electrical contractor that works with large utilities. Currently, he and six other retirees drive buses for One World Community. Debbie volunteers at the hospital, gardens, bakes cookies for military, makes pierogies for the Polish festival, and whatever else she wants to do.

They also babysit for their great-grandson and travel in the winter.

Support from families

Lana Pulverenti loved paperwork and spreadsheets, but she misses the people the most.

Pulverenti worked for OPPD for 34 years, from 1986 to 2020, but actually got her foot in the door in 1985 as a “summer hummer” at the Papillion Center.

Pulverenti worked as a clerk her entire career, going from the Brandeis building to Fort Calhoun Station, Omaha Center and Elkhorn Center. She provided steadfast support to crews working to keep the power on. And, she said, spouses and other family members played critical backup roles.

Lana Pulverenti retirees anniversary
Lana Pulverenti got a visit from her kids, Hannah and Joshua, while she was working long hours during the October 1997 storm restoration. Photo courtesy of Lana Pulverenti

“Working the storms was the most challenging,” she said. “Sometimes we’d go 36 hours without sleep. It’s hard. I missed a lot of things over the years, but I felt like I needed to be doing my job to get the lights on, and I knew the kids were safe.”

Pulverenti’s husband, Steve, was often home with the kids. That scenario played out across the service area with many other OPPD families.

“The kids always understood. They knew I was helping others, which is something important to our family,” Pulverenti said. On several occasions, Steve and the kids stopped in to give her some food and a few hugs.

As employees retired from the service centers, Pulverenti kept them in the loop with what was going on at OPPD. Her email distribution list started with a handful of names and now contains more than 400; everyone from past presidents to worker bees, she said.

Pulverenti and her husband have two children. She’s keeping busy planning her daughter’s wedding and sewing, gardening and baking. Making a cheesecake a week, she’s almost worked through the Cheesecake Bible that her sister-in-law gave her.

Using her skills in retirement

DJ Clarke worked for OPPD for 35 years, from 1980 to 2016. She started in the Call Center but spent the majority of her career as a manager in Corporate Marketing & Communications. She did everything from helping launch the first OPPD website and serving as media spokesperson during the October 1997 snowstorm, to leading internal and external communications, advertising, market research, and products and services.

From 2009 to 2012, she served as manager – Executive Communications, working for President Gary Gates, before returning to Corporate Marketing & Communications.

DJ Clarke retirees
OPPD retiree DJ Clarke now serves as executive Director at Heritage Ridge Retirement Community. Photo courtesy of DJ Clarke

Throughout her tenure, Clarke attended numerous OPPD development programs, obtained her master’s degree in leadership, attended various leadership programs and served on numerous community and industry boards. She also mentored several employees and continuously tapped into her strong communication, team-building and customer service skills to resolve issues.

“I had a lot of opportunities at OPPD, and I worked with many wonderful people,” Clarke said. The skills she picked up at OPPD have served her well post-retirement.

Clarke taught communication classes at both UNO and The College of St. Mary, but ultimately, she landed in management roles in the retirement community industry. She just marked her one-year anniversary as executive director at Heritage Ridge Retirement Community in Bellevue. Before that, she spent three years at New Cassel Retirement Center in Omaha, more than a year as wellness director and two years as chief operating officer.

“Communication skills are important in leading teams,” Clarke said. “I love my job and really love all the people here.”

She and her husband, Mark, have four children.

Making a difference

Clete and Darlene Petrzilka picked up a few things about serving the community during their combined 63 years at OPPD.

Clete worked for more than 38 years, from 1956-1994. He started as a utility worker in the Service Department and retired as senior relay specialist in System Protection. Darlene’s OPPD career spanned  more than 25 years, from 1982-2007. She joined OPPD as an operations clerk in Rural Customer Service and retired as an electrical service designer.

They are doing their parts to keep Louisville a vibrant community.

Clete and Darlene Petrzilka oppd retirees anniversary
Clete and Darlene Petrzilka are working to serve their community in retirement. Photo courtesy of Clete and Darlene Petrzilka

“This town is not dying on the vine like others,” Darlene said.

Both have left imprints on the Cass County town. Clete served on Louisville City Council for 14 years. Darlene has volunteered at the Lutheran Care Center for 20 years, serving on the board and planting flowers in spring and planters in the winter.

And then, there’s their garage workshop, where Clete has refurbished nearly 300 bikes that he donates to the Hope Center, Open Door Mission and Veteran’s Administration.

It’s a team endeavor. If they don’t have something in their stash of parts, Clete shows Darlene the part he wants, and she gets online and finds it.

Both have fond memories of their OPPD days. Clete has vivid recall of a 1959 snowstorm that was raging as he went into work. He and Jack Graves found someone with a big chain to use on the service truck to get to a section north of McKinley Street. “It took us four to five tries to get to that place,” Clete said.

Darlene loves to drive around Gretna to see how it’s changed since she worked with customers like Vala’s Pumpkin Patch.

The Petrizilkas, who also spend time in Alabama Gulf Shores during the winter, have five kids, eight grandkids and three great-grandkids. They cherish time with family, especially after losing a grandson years ago when a tornado hit a Boy Scouts camp.

Their grandchildren play an important role in test-driving the repaired bikes. “It’s important to make sure everything is working properly before we give them away,” Clete said.

Paula Lukowski

Paula Lukowski retired from OPPD in 2020 as supervisor of Brand & Communications. She said her greatest roles in her time at the utility were those of storyteller and historian. Paula also helped improve timeliness and transparency at OPPD by streamlining communications via low-cost and no-cost technologies. She and her husband, Mark, have two grown children, Rachel and John, and a grandson, Oliver.

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