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Still Climbing

Even in retirement, the legendary Chick Herrin helps pull linemen up to his level

Call a lineman, call a lineman
Whenever you need ’em you can always find ’em
Call a lineman, call a lineman
A patriot through and through
Now when you crank up the watts at the break of day
A lineman’s out there sendin’ lots of current your way
Oh Lordy
Call a lineman, call a lineman
He’s always there for you

Chorus from “Call a Lineman,” performed by Chick Herrin, “The Singing Lineman,” and written by Jack Houston (2006)

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International Lineman’s Hall of Fame member Chick Herrin estimates he’s climbed 16,000 utility poles in his lifetime, starting at the age of 8 in his uncle’s front yard in the East Texas town of Hardin. Now, as performances go, it wasn’t the prettiest ascent: Herrin found a pair of climbers in his uncle’s garage, strapped them on and went about 6 feet up a 30-foot-tall pole.

The climbers—contoured leg shanks that hold climbing gaffs, razor-sharp steel points, in place on linemen’s boots—were too big, and Herrin had to secure them above his knees, forcing him to climb straight-legged.

But a career was launched: The boy who never feared heights matured into a dauntless electric lineman who climbed higher and higher, glancing down only to help his co-workers and pull them, metaphorically speaking, up to his level.

Climbing, says the 66-year-old Herrin, now retired, is like dancing. Don’t look down, lest you lose the rhythm of the moment. “Don’t watch your feet,” is his advice to young linemen. “Look up so you don’t stick your head somewhere hot.”

Yes, says Herrin, he’s fallen—but never more than 4 or 5 feet, and never from the top of a pole. And yes, he’s seen other linemen lose their grip on the pole, sometimes taking serious tumbles. A few years ago at the Texas Lineman’s Rodeo near Seguin, Herrin saw an apprentice break his kneecap when he fell from the top of a pole.

“You’re not going to be in this business and not fall,” says the man who used to practice his climbing skills for hours on weekends.

But James “Chick” Herrin—he adopted the nickname from a fictional story he wrote at Jasper High School featuring a cool guy named “Chick”—figured out how to always stay on top during his 43-year career as a lineman and manager that produced a dizzying list of accomplishments.

But don’t ask Herrin to brag. “I’m just a blue-collar guy,” he says. “I’m just a lineman through and through.” The other guys around him, Herrin says, always made him look good. But, for the record, here are some of his successes:

• In 1996, Herrin and Bobby Christmas helped found the Texas Lineman’s Rodeo in collaboration with the Texas Engineering Extension Service (the College Station-based organization is one of the nation’s largest workforce safety and training providers).

• In 2005, Herrin and Christmas, the current chairman of the organization’s board of directors, formed and incorporated the Texas Lineman’s Rodeo Association (TLRA).

• In 2006, Herrin was the only living member of the inaugural class inducted into the International Lineman’s Hall of Fame, based in Shelby, North Carolina.

• In 2007, Herrin, who enjoys a loyal following as “The Singing Lineman,” co-wrote “Somebody’s Hero” with songwriter Jack Houston. The song kick-started Herrin’s musical career.

• In August 2009, Herrin retired from a 25-year career with Bryan Texas Utilities (BTU). Herrin, who started as a crew foreman with BTU in 1984, spent his final nine years with the co-op as manager of the Underground and Service Department.

Throughout his entire career, which began in 1966 and included jobs with contractors, investor-owned utilities, municipalities and rural systems in several states, Herrin’s passion for the job only grew stronger.

Herrin says he tells young linemen, “If you don’t love this stuff, just don’t do it. Do something else. Get a job driving a truck.”

Herrin’s safety regimen started during breakfast when he’d tell his wife, Patty, “We’re not gonna fight and argue in the morning time because I’m not gonna worry about that all day. I’m gonna work, and I’m gonna be thinking about what I’m doing.”

That entailed, Herrin explained, what not to think about: how high he was climbing, what he might have for supper, whether he’d go dancing that night. “You keep your head in the game,” he says. “At its best, it’s dangerous work, so obviously, when you’re not at your best, you’re not in a good spot.”

Indifference, Herrin notes, leads to carelessness, and he made his mark at BTU by helping raise safety standards and improving work methods.

The co-op’s apprentice program, for example, incorporates work skills that Herrin introduced in the transmission, distribution and substation areas, such as how to change out insulators on an energized line.

Through the years, he taught hot-stick schools for the Texas Engineering Extension Service in College Station and coached line crews during major service disruptions. In the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2005, he assembled two BTU crews and supervised restoration efforts for San Augustine, in East Texas. For their efforts, the BTU crews were given a key to the city.

Looking at such an extensive résumé, it’s tempting to sum up Herrin in the past tense. But Herrin, as a member of the TLRA’s board of directors and chairman of its advisory board, is mentally present with every apprentice and lineman as they climb poles at the annual rodeo near Seguin.

It was Herrin’s vision and commitment to higher safety and training standards that helped make the rodeo a reality. He built a coalition of supporters and directs many aspects of the competition, including helping develop rodeo events that reflect a rapidly changing industry.

On July 17, 2010, Herrin sat on aluminum bleachers watching the 14th annual Texas Lineman’s Rodeo. The wail of sirens split the hot afternoon air as an ambulance whisked away two linemen overcome by heat exhaustion in a climbing event.

Herrin witnessed the advent of the bucket truck more than 30 years ago, but linemen still routinely climb on the job. The rodeo, Herrin says, is especially helpful in teaching the less experienced competitors how to handle themselves on poles: Always make three-point contact, with both hands on the back of the pole and at least one foot touching wood.

As for Herrin’s life these days, he’s busy handling a microphone and climbing, comfortably, to the next stage of his singing career that has produced four CDs, starting with “Living in a Lineman’s World” in 2008. Herrin, who lives in Black Jack, near Hearne, often can be found performing in downtown Bryan. He says he enjoys doing live performances but doesn’t want a steady diet of entertaining on the road.

As a boy, he sang solos and a duet with his sister in an Assembly of God church in Hardin. Years later, he still loves singing for people. “If they enjoy it, I have a good time,” says Herrin, who plans to continue his recent, annual tradition of performing at Santa’s Wonderland in College Station.

Herrin performs down-to-earth songs about electric linemen’s lives. Songs about faith, family, 3 a.m. phone calls from dispatch and the good fortune to do something for a living that brightens faces everywhere linemen go. His first CD was featured at www.linemen.com and drew huge interest. One woman in California paid Herrin $24 to send her a CD by overnight mail to her father, a lineman, who was ill.

It’s a harmonious life for Herrin, a father and grandfather who celebrated 48 years of marriage with Patty on April 22. His left biceps bears a tattoo—the names Chick and Patty are engraved on two blue banners across a heart. The ink has faded, and the names are hard to read, but the image plays the happy melody of Herrin’s heart:

“I’m singing in my head all the time.”

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Camille Wheeler, associate editor