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By Angela Catton

Electric cooperatives set aside the second Monday in April to celebrate and recognize the men and women who work around the clock to keep the lights on. Lineworkers are some of the most visible people at your local co-op, and every day of the year, we appreciate the commitment and passion they bring to serving members.

In many families, the tradition of being a lineman may involve some family members across generations. For the Freml family of western Iowa, all six children in a single generation became linemen.

A legacy begins

The Freml co-op story begins in Denison in the 1950s, on a 200-acre family farm. Wesley (Wes) and Rita Freml were grain farmers who also raised livestock and received their electric service from South Crawford Rural Electric Cooperative (which eventually became Western Iowa Power Cooperative).

The Fremls raised six children – all boys – on that farm. Sons Jim, Tom, Charley, Rich, Joe and Gerry were responsible for contributing to the operation. While having six sons to carry on the operation would have been a dream come true for Wes, he quickly realized he was facing a dilemma – farm work was tough, and there wasn’t enough land to pass along to six boys. How could he secure a future for his sons, raised with a foundation of service to their neighbors and the agricultural community?

Jim. Wes’ eldest son, Jim, seemed curious when the local REC guys came around the farm. “Dad worked horse teams with a few guys who worked for the REC, and he had spoken to them about their experiences,” he explains. A neighbor, Vernon Newman, also served on the board of directors.

Wes took Jim to the REC, where they learned there would be an opening due to an upcoming retirement. The timing was perfect for Jim, so he went to power line school at Northwest Iowa Vocational School (now known as Northwest Iowa Community College) in Sheldon. He graduated in 1973 and went to work for South Crawford Rural Electric Cooperative.

Following in their brother’s footsteps

Tom. Tom had an affinity for farm work and often performed odd jobs for several neighboring farms. “We were Baby Boomers and at that time, every family had a big batch of kids,” Tom says. “Since land was scarce, I knew I might have to consider another career but wanted to stay in a rural setting. I also enjoyed working for the neighbors we knew so well.”

Tom talked with Jim about his work and soon realized that work for a co-op provided opportunities to serve the rural community. Tom completed his education at Northwest Iowa Vocational School, graduating just one year and three months after his big brother. Tom went to work for Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) in Creston.

Charley. Charley was convinced his career would take on a different trajectory. Following high school, he worked at the local meat-packing plant. The work was hard. “You wore rubber boots and gloves all day long. I wasn’t happy in that environment,” recalls Charley.

Wes saw the careers Jim and Tom were building and felt compelled to give Charley a gentle push. He offered to pay Charley’s tuition to Northwest Iowa Vocational School if Charley could pay for his room and board. “I was a saver,” Charley adds. Covering room and board was easy, and he couldn’t pass on the opportunity. He graduated from the lineman program in 1977 and went to work for Glidden REC, which later became Raccoon Valley REC.

Gerry. Wes had helped his youngest son Gerry rent and work ground while he was still in high school. Gerry enjoyed the work but was experiencing the pressures of the farming economy in the early 1980s. Gerry admits, “I saw no future in it. I knew I wanted to go to school in Sheldon, too.” Two weeks after graduation, Gerry headed for power line school, graduating in 1981. Soon after, he accepted a position with Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO) on the Harlan Outpost crew.

Rich. Rich worked for the local Safeway grocery store and thoroughly enjoyed it. “This was going to be my career,” Rich says. “But when the national office closed many of Iowa’s stores, I was forced to consider other options.” Rich trained in law enforcement, walked beans and even acquired a CDL (chauffeurs driving license) and worked a pop-route.

Rich felt uninspired. Brother Gerry had learned of an opening for a boom truck operator at Nishnabotna Valley REC in Harlan and Rich was soon hired (in 1983). After four years of driving the boom truck, Rich began assisting with installing radio-controlled switches at member locations to support the co-op’s load management program. From there, Rich moved into member services.

Joe. Joe also became a lineman after completing coursework in telecommunications at Des Moines Area Community College. Joe took employment with an Iowa co-op, but it was a telephone cooperative in Lake Mills. As telephone companies underwent deregulation, Joe was bounced from telco to telco and became frustrated with the experience. He went to work for Adams County REC, which became Southwest Iowa REC, in Corning. Joe died in 2012.

The surviving brothers, except for Gerry, who serves as crew foreman for NIPCO’s Harlan Outpost, are enjoying retirement from their respected cooperatives. Gerry will soon follow in their footsteps, too.

Foundation for the next generation

Rita Freml passed in 2004 and Wes in 2014, leaving a legacy of cooperative linemen. “Dad was really proud of that school in Sheldon,” Gerry says. “When he passed, the family created two $500 scholarships in their name for students pursuing linework.” The next generation of Freml lineworkers continues in Jim’s son Lance who serves as a journeyman lineman for Pella Cooperative Electric Association.

While linework has its challenges and can be dangerous, it can also be gratifying. Like the Freml brothers’ experiences, lineworkers know that their service benefits rural communities.

“When storms take out the power, and you get the lights turned back on, members really appreciate the work of the co-op,” Charley says. “It’s rewarding work to serve co-op members.”  

Angela Catton is the manager of member relations and development for Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative.

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