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FEATURE

Hand-Me-Down Work Ethic

As the pine logs roll through TEC’s pole manufacturing plant, Kirk Lacy hears his father’s words: ‘Don’t do anything you can’t sign your name to’

Kirk Lacy remembers how, as a child, his mother would squeeze his hands between her palms and say with pride that one day, those hands would be calloused from hard work. She also said he would be happy to be alive.

To generations of Lacys—from his grandfather Martin C. Lacy Sr., a San Augustine County motor grader operator, to his father, Martin C. Lacy Jr., a maintenance man—hard work meant being able to provide for family. That’s the Lacy way: Work and family keep the hands calloused and the heart tender.

After nearly 34 years of working at Texas Electric Cooperatives’ utility pole manufacturing plant in Jasper, Kirk Lacy’s hands are indeed calloused—roughened, brawny and browned from the East Texas sun. “I can’t let my name down,” he says.

As maintenance manager of the Manufacturing and Distribution Services plant, Lacy has had his hands on everything from lightbulbs to the giant machines that can peel bark off 100-foot tall trees. He’s one of about 80 employees —pole markers, harvesters, assembly-line workers and truckers—playing a part in a carefully choreographed dance on the 50-acre plant where as many as 120,000 slash, loblolly and longleaf pines from East Texas and Louisiana woods are fashioned into utility poles and shipped all across the country every year.

“I’m proud of everything because I have my hands on all of it,” he says. “I’ve never had just a job.”

‘Cleanin’ Floors and Fixin’ Flats’

The 50-year-old Lacy—a 5-foot-8-inch man with broad shoulders and a gray-fringed goatee—began working part time at the plant in 1978. “I started when I was 16, on May 19 at 9 a.m.,” he says. “I will never forget it.”

He started out just “cleanin’ floors and fixin’ flats,” but within two years, Lacy was on full time, climbing from laborer to mechanic to welder and millwright. Sixteen years later, he moved from the garage to the office to serve as maintenance manager. In his position, he manages and schedules repairs, construction and improvements for the entire Jasper facility. But that’s just the start.

“It’s not a glamour job, by no means,” says Assistant Maintenance Manager Billy Wayne Caldwell, who has known Lacy since the two met at church 31 years ago. “It takes a pretty special person to sit on top of it and manage it.”

May marks Lacy’s 34th year with TEC—34 years “that I have seen the same thing every day,” Lacy says matter-of-factly. His tenure at the pole plant is the longest in the department, says Charlie Faulds, who retired as the plant’s senior vice president in January and worked with Lacy for 14 years. That kind of hands-on experience, Faulds says, is equivalent to a degree in engineering, and Lacy’s buddies say he can sit down with the best.

That is, if he had time to sit down.

From Lightbulbs to Peeling Line

From a green camouflaged golf cart with thick, meaty tires, Lacy makes his rounds to assess the grounds. As the sun breaks through the morning clouds, the oily smell of creosote used to treat poles seems stronger in the humid air. But Lacy doesn’t detect it. “I smell the flowers,” he says, sporting a dimpled smile and pointing to a cluster of yellow wildflowers growing in the midst of the ever-moving industrial scene he surveys. His eye sweeps over them, and on to the boiler room, steam and creosote-treating cylinders and pole-peeling lines.

He’s identifying what needs repairs —and finding ways to increase efficiency. He’s looked at it so many times that it just takes a glance to know when something needs fixing. “Kirk knows the plant like the back of his hand,” Caldwell says. “He knows where every skeleton is, and how to fix it.”

Lacy spots slack in a chain below a conveyer belt in one of the two peeling systems and a burned-out lightbulb over the classification department where poles are measured. Taking mental note, he plans to delegate the fixes to his 11-man maintenance team. Pausing, Lacy dips into a can of Copenhagen snuff he pulls from a back pocket of his Wranglers.

Although both peelers are engineering marvels—processing about one pole a minute, tossing them like toothpicks over conveyer belts with the thunder-like sound of roller coasters—Lacy takes special pride in peeler No. 1. It’s all about the angle, he explains—it can’t be a straight line. Lacy draws one across a white sticky note to illustrate his point. He thinks best in pictures, he says. The angle keeps pressure on the whole length of the tree, resulting in a cleaner peel. Lacy knows the exact angle because he designed it, and then built it to the specs within one-sixteenth of an inch.

Lacy stows his hand-drawn peeling- line schematics in his office. They’re filed alongside other souvenirs of his work, such as models of 18-wheelers with specialized trailers for hauling pines and poles, as well as mementos of his family, like the snapshot of him standing in Texas Stadium during a 2006 family trip to tour the home of the Dallas Cowboys (the team’s new facility, Cowboys Stadium, opened in 2009).

For Lacy, work and family go hand in hand.

Family Man, Company Man

The office from which Lacy works—as well as the maintenance manager title—first belonged to his father, who worked at TEC’s original, now closed, treating plant in Lufkin. That’s where Kirk Lacy was born, but he did most of his growing up on a 27-acre farm in the piney Angelina National Forest near the banks of the Sam Rayburn Reservoir after his father relocated for work. Lacy’s father dedicated around 20 years to TEC.

“I’ve always eaten from the profits of this place. Always,” Lacy says, explaining that TEC paychecks have supported him his entire life and now support his wife and children, too. “We’ve grown up with it. It’s like family.”

At 18, Lacy married his teenage heartthrob, Angela. A black-and-white photo of her as a young woman, posed in jeans and a tank top, is pressed under the glass top of his work desk at the center of a photo collage, which also features another love: a Yamaha V Star motorcycle. For about eight years, Lacy says, he and his wife “ripped, romped and played,” and then had two children, Megan, 23, the only woman who has worked in the plant’s manufacturing area, and Sam, 20, a Marine serving in Afghanistan. Lacy wells up with proud tears at the thought of his son and pulls out his cellphone to show off a picture of Sam in uniform in front of an American flag backdrop. At a loss for words, Lacy crosses his index and middle fingers: He and his son are that tight.

Two years after Sam was born, Lacy adopted the title—and the work ethic—of his father, the former maintenance manager. “My father told me, ‘Don’t do anything you can’t sign your name to, boy,’ ” Lacy recalls.

He takes that to mean doing the best possible job on everything he touches, and he asks his crew, a gang he calls his “Green Berets,” to be the best of the best. That’s “the way I was raised,” Lacy says. “I’ve got to improve upon myself, or my job might become stagnant, and they might need someone else.”

‘Full-Tilt Boogie’

But even after all his years at the pole plant, Lacy continues to be TEC’s go-to person for all-things maintenance at the plant—from fixing flats to improving engineering operations.

“If you put your eyes on it, you probably got a finger in it,” Caldwell says of their profession.

So when Lacy bursts through the doors of Caldwell’s office—a portable building with a remote-controlled air conditioner that’s too loud to talk over—and belts out that he needs a grommet to seal an 18-wheeler’s cooling system, Caldwell shows no surprise. Buy, sell, babysit, psychoanalyze, weld—“Kirk is good about keeping up with his guys,” he says. Lacy lends a hand wherever needed to keep all parts of the plant moving.

Caldwell, who calls himself the more laid-back of the two, clicks off the droning air conditioner. By the time he can point to a storage cabinet, Lacy is rifling through its contents. He yanks a seal from a cardboard box, holds it up to the light and examines it through his aviator-style eyeglasses. It’s not the right fit. And that’s the way the business of maintenance goes. “You can’t plan a day,” Lacy says. He shoves the box back into the cabinet, shuts it up and stomps out, yet searching for the part, not ready to give up.

Caldwell, still behind his desk, turns back on the air conditioner. “That’s Kirk,” he says, “full-tilt boogie all the time.”

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Suzanne Haberman, staff writer