Gordon Robinson
Concord Municipal Light Plant

Age 55

Interviewed March 3, 1998

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Gordon Robinson has worked for the light plant for the past 37 years and has recently retired. He describes changes in the town and the delivery of electrical power.

Gordon RobinsonI was born in 1942 so World War II was going on but I was so young that I don't remember too much. During the war I bounced back and forth between Concord and Carlisle to my grandparents' houses. One grandfather had a house right by the Willow Pond in Carlisle so we'd stay with him for a while and I guess after they got tired of listening to me scream, then they'd ship me down to Willow Street to my Grandmother and Grandfather Robinson. The big story always was that after the war was over my grandfather closed off all of Willow Street and had this huge party that lasted they said for three days. People were dancing in the street, the whole thing. I don't remember any of that of course, but it was something that as long as I can remember people who participated in it always talked about it. My Grandfather Robinson was a great guy for throwing parties anyway. That was his thing. He was a big politician around town and knew a lot of people and he worked in the city and knew everybody in there also.

I went through the Concord School system and I was in the first graduating class in what we called the new high school which is where the dump was. I remember that all being built. Concord basically in those days was a farming community. I used to work for Lawrence Kenney driving tractors and loading all the produce and taking it into market. I graduated from high school and my father wanted me to go to college but I had no interest in it at all. I think he was really disappointed in that. I was kind of just finding my way through the summer and then I stopped at the Sunoco Gas Station in West Concord right where Hudson National Bank is now, and there was just a bunch of us guys hanging out like teenagers do at a gas station. The light department line crew was over there working, and this was in the days before they had bucket trucks and everything and all the linemen were climbing the poles, and I'm standing there watching them. The foreman at the time was George Barrett, and he came over to me and asked me what my name was and I told him. He said, "I see you watching these guys working. Would you be interested in a job?" I said, "Yea, I guess so." I didn't really know George Barrett but he grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me up right to him and he wasn't a very big man and he said, "Do you want a damn job or don't you?" I said, "Yea." So he came down that weekend with an application, and I went to work the following Monday, August 7, 1961.

At that time the light department didn't have two-way radios, fancy bucket trucks or anything like that. Everything we did was by hand, braiding and using ropes and blocks. The linemen in those days probably didn't know as much about electricity but they knew how to rig things. Actually I enjoyed working for the light department more in those days then with all the new equipment now. The linemen today understand electricity a lot better than the previous linemen, but the work was a lot harder then and to me it seemed more interesting. Again there were no bucket trucks so you always had to climb poles. When you got hired at the light department in those days, you got hired as a driver-groundman so essentially your job consisted of driving the truck, putting stock on the truck and tending to the linemen. On the truck I was on there were five linemen so they would go up the pole and I had to send them the tools. I did that for the first three years I was there.

Then when I came back from going into the service, that's when I started my apprenticeship to become a lineman. I can still remember the pole that I first climbed ¾ pole 31 on Barrett's Mill Road and I was terrified. I climbed up there and the lineman that was with me was a guy named Don Glencross. When you climb poles you're not supposed to be grabbing hold of everything, you're supposed to feel secure and just go up there. I got up to the top of the pole and I'm working and every time that I went to lean out I would be holding onto something. Well, he took his wrench and smashed my fingers, both hands for the company he would always tell me, put both hands out there and work. So that was the training process. You didn't go to school for it, it was the school of hard knocks, and fortunately I had very good teachers so I survived the 37 years there.

At that time people who worked for the town lived in the town. As a matter of fact if you didn't live in the town when they hired you, you had to sign a paper to state that you would move into town. When you went on call, there were no beepers and basically the town paid for your telephone and all the light department numbers were listed in the phone book and your phone number would be there so if there was an emergency, people would call you directly at home. It was so bad that when you were on call, you couldn't even go out and mow your lawn because if you were running the lawn mower you couldn't hear the phone. So you basically had to stay in the house or have somebody in the house to listen for the phone. They wouldn't accept that you didn't hear the phone call. If something happened and you missed a call, it was the wrath of God coming down upon you. That stayed that way for years. I can't remember the exact date but it changed when Bill Ryan was the foreman. He decided to buy a house in Carlisle. He was only going to move one town over and it was still a 369 phone number and he had worked for the town for over 30 years, but when he went to Russ Eldridge the superintendent and told him he was going to move to Carlisle, Russ said, "Well, I guess you're going to have to get another job." Then they changed that and you could go from Concord to a neighboring town. Now there are guys who live in Reading and further away. You just can't get guys to work for the town and live in the town. In those days the garage was down on Keyes Road but it was a lot smaller than it is today. There was a little brick building and that was what we called our ready room and that's where the linemen would be. Then over in the Public Works Department on the top floor where the Town Engineer is now, that's where the light department office was. So the light department staff in those days consisted of Russ Eldridge the superintendent, Earl Hicks the meter reader, Bob McConnell the other meter reader and two ladies who worked in there. Then on the line crew we had George Barrett foreman, Ted McKenna the other foreman, Bill Ryan, Charlie Sheehan, Dick O'Neil, Don Glencross, Warren Sorensen, Don Hopkins and myself. We had two trucks and we didn't have any of the hydraulic equipment that you see today. They were just big trucks with a utility body on each one and a wench in the back of it and we had a little pick up truck with a ladder that you cranked up. In those days when you went to work for the light department you also went to work for the fire department. Everybody was on call mainly. They had just two or three permanent guys. So when the fire whistle blew and the fire station then was on Walden Street, they'd blow the fire whistle and no matter what we were doing, we stopped and we'd get in the trucks and go to the fire and put the ladders up, carry the hoses up the ladder, go inside the buildings and put the fire out. When we got done we'd put all our stuff away and go back to the line work. No matter what the fire was, you went and helped. I used to look forward to it because it kind of broke up the monotony of the day. I don't care what we were doing. It could be a huge project, it stopped. It came to a complete close and that was it when the fire whistle blew.

Before I went to Vietnam we had the trucks with just a utility body, no two-way radios, essentially what we'd do during a storm then was we had telephones and we would climb up the pole and plug it in if the phones were working and call back to the office for the next job. Either that or Russ Eldridge would have to come out and tell us the next place to go to. To get sidetracked here a little bit, it always amazed me Russ Eldridge wore a suit jacket and the whole light department was in his breast pocket. He had these white papers and he would just walk out and hand the foreman a job or whatever it may be, it was a little white paper in his hand. All the engineering, anything that he wanted done was on that piece of paper he handed to the foreman to take care of it. As far as the hiring and firing, it was all up to the foreman. If the foreman hired somebody or even if he wouldn't doing the hiring, he did the firing. I saw two or three guys come there and they didn't work out, the foreman walked over to Russ Eldridge and said, "This guy isn't going to work out," and Russ would walk over to the guy, "Put your stuff away, you're all done." You didn't have all the legal ramifications that you have today. In those days we started at 8:00 and we worked until 4:30. When I say we started work at 8:00 that meant the truck was rolling out of the garage at 8:00 so all the stock had to be put on the truck and ready for the next day that night and the trucks came back into the garage at 4:30. As the groundman it was my job to clean the truck off and put the new stock on. Basically I did that after 4:30 and I didn't get paid for it. If you didn't do it, you had to listen to George Barrett. Don't get me wrong, he was a great guy to work for but you listened to him. He would explain in no uncertain terms that won't happen again. In those days too the foremen were real foremen. I look at some of these real old pictures and he fit right in there. He had the soft Stetson hat, cigar in his mouth, sports jacket and a tie on every day when he came to work. Ted McKenna was the other foreman and Ted didn't wear a sports jacket or anything, but they didn't touch the work, they stood back and told everybody exactly what they wanted done. They both were very, very good foremen. They worked their guys hard too. There wasn't much slack time.

Then when I came back from Vietnam in early 1967, we had bought new equipment. In about 1968-69, they starting buying hydraulic diggers and two-way radios had already come into play in about 1963. But when I came back, Russ Eldridge was still superintendent, but George Barrett had retired and he passed away six months after he retired which was very unfortunate. Then Charlie Sheehan became the other foreman. We didn't have a general foreman in those days. Then it was decided to buy a bucket truck. They bought it but they gave it to the tree department. And didn't that cause a stir. We'd be working storms and the tree department would be riding around in the bucket truck that we bought, we were still climbing these icy poles with ice and snow all over the wires. That's just the way it was.

Then the whole concept of the work started to change. In the 1970s Dick O'Neil became superintendent. At the time I had moved up to the ranks of a first class lineman and I was on call. When Russ Eldridge and Dick O'Neil came to me just before Russ was getting ready to retire, and Paul Flynn was the Town Manager and I didn't have any dealings with the Town Manager, but all of a sudden the two of them bring me up to visit the Town Manager. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to be fired. The town wanted to pay for my education and they wanted me to get an engineering degree like Dick O'Neil had done and become Dick O'Neil's assistant. Like everything else more and more paperwork was building up. I really appreciated the offer but again as I said earlier, I hated school and I basically told them that I appreciated it but I didn't really want to do it. Carol, my wife, was pretty upset about the whole thing. But as time went on, I never regretted it. I always really liked being a lineman. As a matter of fact, I loved it. I used to get up every day looking forward to being a lineman and going to work and climbing the poles. Even when I became a general foreman I never cared for it. The actual lineman was the happiest time of my career.

The whole concept in the delivery of electricity in Concord is we've gone from an overhead electrical system where you had poles and wires that are exposed to an underground system where they want to hide everything underground. People believe it is going to be an even more reliable system. That's true, I guess the system is a little more reliable, but I've always said when you do have a problem with an underground system, it's always a big problem. Number one, you've got to go find the problem. On the overhead system you could drive down the street and could see the problem. Underground is very, very expensive. Personally I don't like it. That's another reason why I retired. I thought way too much money is being spent on the underground right now. It's been said for the light plant alone it is a million dollars a mile.

I think Concord has a very reliable system and I think if we had kept to an overhead system, the system would have been as reliable. They spent a tremendous amount of money on this underground, but that's what the people in town want. I think this was motivated by the people in town. In the beginning I think it was more the aesthetics and it started out, which I agree with this part of it, when a developer came in to build a development, it was all underground. And I'm all in favor of that. Basically there the contractor pays for everything and when he sells the house he recoups his costs. But as far as taking an existing overhead system and putting it underground, you're talking major, major money and there are always problems. There are always problems getting variances and easements and everything else to put your equipment in place. It takes time and there is a lot of inconvenience to everybody and again a tremendous amount of money. That's been the biggest change in the delivery of electricity.

Now we still have linemen at Concord Light and they would much rather be linemen but the thing is now they're basically cable splicers because they are doing so much underground work. In Concord they've been very fortunate because they don't have a union and so the lineman that climbs the pole and fixes the wires and the overhead system is also that same lineman/cable splicer that goes down the manhole and splices those cables together. Where in the bigger utilities there are unions and nobody touches the other guy's job. So the people in town have really benefited by that, and all in all it is still a small work force. The actual light department as far as the line crew consists hasn't grown except for adding a mechanic to when I started. The office staff has grown tremendously and the engineering staff has grown tremendously. Well we didn't have an engineering staff when I started. Russ Eldridge was the engineer then and when he left, Dick O'Neil had gone to school and got his engineering degree and he was the engineer, then when Dick retired, Dan Sack became superintendent (1988), and we've been adding people as we've gone along. When Dick was there he started building up an engineering staff.

Dick O'Neil exemplified what a manager was all about. Dick is really special to me. Number one, he taught me how to climb poles and then number two, he became the superintendent and he was my boss. Not because he and I agreed on everything because we didn't, but the guy was a superb manager. He knew where every nut and bolt in the company was and where it was going. He was definitely a hands-on guy. While I was there he had two heart attacks, and I'm sure it was due to the stresses of the job. When we had major storms, he would be there from beginning to end, never go home and sleep, stay right there, not only being concerned for the customers but for his men. He always wanted to make sure his guys were all right. He's a real good guy.

A municipal light plant is a unique kind of structure and Concord's light plant is probably more unique than a lot of them because now a lot of the municipal light plants are run more as a private business. They're owned by the town but they're run separately from the town and they give you money back in lieu of taxes. But in the town of Concord, the manager of the light department is the Town Manager, so in that case we really work for the town, where in other light departments the employees work for the light department. Like I mentioned earlier when I started with the light department we would fight fires and during the bad snow storms like the blizzard of ‘78 fortunately we didn't have a lot of problems with the power system, so we went out and plowed snow. We've been doing that for years and to this day we still do that. Fortunately this winter we didn't have a lot of problems, but previous winters when we had a lot of snow and we weren't having a lot of problems, we would send guys over and help out the highway department plow. Again there's no union there so we can do those things without a big hassle.

The light department has always tried to do as much as it could for the different organizations in the town like the Chamber of Commerce with all the Christmas lighting in town, the light department donates all that time which is pretty expensive. We're out there straight for two weeks putting up all those lights and then you've got to go back and take them all down again. But it's worked out well. If they ever get the new light poles in the center of town, they'll probably do something a little different down there then. New light poles were scheduled before I retired and as it turned out, they just haven't had the time to get it done. Again the underground just takes so much time and everything seems to get pushed aside to get these projects done. The old poles are concrete and these new ones are aluminum and they're painted black and they have the antique look to them. That was another thing. Concord being Concord all the committees that we have in the town had to look at it and they even took bus rides around town to show the lighting. For a long time we had what we called series street lights which were basically incandescent bulbs then we went to the mercury street lights and they are a lot more efficient. Now we have the sodium street lights but for a long time we couldn't put sodium up because people in town didn't like them. But now sodiums have come in and they are a lot more efficient type of light and a lot cheaper to run. The way the system works is the tax payer is charged for street lighting so there is always a concern as to how much money is going out into street lighting systems. They try and make that as efficient as possible.

The move of the light plant from Keyes Road to the new location on Route 2A involves a lot of controversy. The light department needed more room. There is no question about that. We would have liked to have stayed right where we were, but we got involved with the Natural Resources and a bunch of other commissions that didn't want us there any more because of the transformers with the Concord River right there. Then they felt they wanted to upgrade the public works area and give them more space so it was thought why don't we move the light department out and use their facility for the public works and tree department. Then it came time to find a location for the light department and that was another problem because Dan Sack the superintendent when this all took place, proposed a number of locations and every one of them got shot down. It finally came down to the site we have now or is being built now at the rotary. A lot of people criticized that site. Well, that's no fault of the light department. Basically that the only place in town they'd let us go to. We don't think it's the greatest site either but they still want to keep a light department and that was it and they got the land for nothing I believe. So there it is whether it is a good location or a bad one.

Some of the other options Dan proposed included up near the town dump at Walden Street because there is some vacant property up there, another one was down where our old substation was on Main Street. Personally I knew that would never fly. I always thought we should have gone to Forest Ridge because we built that new substation there. I thought that would have been the perfect location but I guess there were some problems with the zoning there too. It's too late now because the new one is almost all built. A lot of people make a big deal about us trying to go around the rotary but we've been going around the rotary for years, so it's not that big a thing.

Now the town is definitely different from when I was a kid, but the whole country is different. Not in a negative way but Concord is different in that it's not the community I grew up in. There are a lot of nice people here but it's become a real affluent community and people just don't know their neighbors around here any more. At one time you could walk through the center of town and you knew everybody and that was nice. You don't have that any more. But again I don't think that is just Concord, that's the country in general. I guess the only thing I will say about that is I'm glad I worked and lived in Concord in the days that I did and worked for the light department when I did. I'm glad that I've been able to retire now because there are a lot of changes which I mentioned earlier. I always loved being a lineman, and as I said I never enjoyed the underground work, so it was a good time for me to step aside and let somebody else do it. It's just different. Years ago you would go out, work a storm, get the people's power back on, and people would invite you in for a cup of coffee. A lot of people in town don't even say thank you any more. It's just expected, which it is because that's our job. But I don't know it's definitely a different world we live in today.

Concord was a little town but it was kind of exciting because you used to get up every day and when you went to work down at the light department, you never knew what you were going to do. You might be climbing a pole or you might be putting out a fire or you might have to plow snow. Now we still do some of those things, but basically a lot of the work consists of going to work every day, climbing down manholes and start splicing some cable and pulling new cables in there. It's heavy and it's hard work. The town is fortunate. I hope they realize they have a great bunch of guys down there. The linemen are great people. Ted McKenna, one of my foremen, had a stroke while I was working for him. Hopefully I didn't give it to him. He never came back to work. Dick Hopkins who was the master mechanic at the highway department passed away while I was there. Don Glencross and Mike Pearson died, and I still miss those guys.

Concord Municipal Light Plant

RCWH. mounted 28 Jan. 2008, photograph added 27 March 2013.