As waves of linemen are retiring from the industry, young pre-apprentices are blazing their way into the trade. To support these aspiring linemen, the International Lineman’s Rodeo Association (ILRA) founded a scholarship program 13 years ago.
“We are very interested in helping to support the kids in the trade,” says Dennis Kerr, chairman of the scholarship committee and co-chairman of the ILRA board of directors. “It’s very important that young people know that they don’t have to go to a four-year college. The trade schools are a good way to get an education and get a good livelihood.”
Honoring Veteran Linemen
In 2002, the ILRA awarded its first $1,000 scholarship in honor of Event Coordinator Billy Begnaud of IBEW Local 66 in Houston, Texas. Shortly after the 2001 rodeo, he died during open-heart surgery. The scholarship is a tribute to his work for the ILRA and the industry.
The ILRA then began awarding a scholarship in memory of Gaylord Robinson, who worked for Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) and competed in the first International Lineman’s Rodeo. The third scholarship, sponsored by Solomon Corp. in both 2014 and 2015, was established to honor Bob Rengal, the ILRA grounds coordinator and a KCP&L lineman.
“Bob ate, slept and drank line work 24-7,” Kerr says. “He kept the grounds in perfect condition, and he climbed all the poles on the grounds to make sure everything was in shape for the rodeo.”
ILRA named its fourth scholarship for Jim Hamilton, a “lineman’s lineman” for MidAmerican Energy in Iowa. This year, Pacific Gas & Electric sponsored the scholarship in honor of Hamilton, who served as a competitor, event judge, chief judge and member of the advisory committee.
While the ILRA has awarded four $2,000 scholarships over the last decade, the association was able to select one more winner for 2015 thanks to a sponsorship from Snap-On Tools.
“They donated a big, beautiful tool chest so we could sell raffle tickets, and all of the proceeds could to go the scholarship program,” Kerr says. “We were able to make a fifth ILRA scholarship sponsored by Snap-On Tools from the more than $10,000 that was raised.”
The ILRA sent a $2,000 check to each of the winners’ schools to apply towards tuition, books or tools. If the student was completely paid up for his or her schooling, then the school wrote the student a check for $2,000.
Celebrating Future Leaders
To apply for the scholarship, the entrants must have a high school diploma or GED equivalent and write a letter to the scholarship committee about why they want the scholarship. They also must be the son or daughter of a journeyman lineman or be recommended by a lineman and ask their high school advisor, trade school teacher, family member or employer to write a letter to the ILRA. A five-member committee reads the applications and then scores and rates the applicants.
Kerr says he had the opportunity to meet three of the scholarship winners at the International Lineman’s rodeo, expo and awards banquet.
“All three of them seemed like top-class young men, and I think they will do very well during their careers,” he says. “They were thoughtful, courteous and interested in becoming linemen. I also talked to another one of the applicants who was excited about his schooling and quite interested in becoming a lineman down the road.”
So far, Kerr says nearly all of the scholarship winners have topped out as journeymen and became leaders in the line trade. In fact, one of the first scholarship recipients now works for KCP&L, and over the last three years, he and his journeyman team have walked across the stage at the awards banquet.
“About 99% of the recipients have all been successful in their apprenticeships through journeyman linemen,” Kerr says. “That goes to show that we are selecting some great applicants. Each of the scholarship winners is a good kid.”
Crowning this Year’s Scholars
For 2015, five future linemen earned $2,000 scholarships including Lane Zehr of Castorland, New York, who plans to apply the $2,000 Billy Begnaud Scholarship towards his $17,000 tuition at Southeast Lineman College.
“It was unbelievable,” Zehr says. “When then I found out I won the scholarship and was invited to go to the International Lineman’s Rodeo, I immediately called my parents, and they said it was a great opportunity to find out what line work was all about.”
In October, he and his parents flew to Kansas City, where he and two of the other winners were awarded a plaque at the banquet in front of thousands of linemen and their families. “It was a great experience,” Zehr says. “They called us up on stage, and the linemen clapped for us. It was fantastic and gave us such adrenaline.”
In the future, he says he is looking forward to joining an apprenticeship program and one day topping out as a journeyman. “I didn’t see myself going to college, and line work seemed like where I could belong,” Zehr says. “It is hard work, you get to be outside, work on a crew, see the country and meet a lot of great people. Also, when you are a lineman, you are there when people need you.”
Another winner, MeeShann Schmidt of Charlevoix, Michigan, won a scholarship to Alpena Community College. With the Bob Rengal Scholarship, he is pursuing his dream of working as a lineman. His uncle and one of his good friends, who both work as linemen, inspired him to work in the trade. With the scholarship, he can cover the $2,000 cost of the tools needed for the program.
Also, three students from Lincoln Land Community College won ILRA scholarships including Kit Mefford of Griggsville, Illinois. Mefford won the Jim Hamilton Scholarship, which will help him to cover the financial costs of attending trade school. In his letter to the scholarship committee,
Mefford said he is paying his own way through college and believes line work is a good fit for him for a career.
“I am a hard worker, team player and not afraid of heights,” says Mefford, who ran his own lawn-care business, worked on his rural Illinois farm, and worked a summer job for a construction company. “The responsibility of an important occupation that is as dangerous as working with electricity on a daily basis would be rewarding.”
In addition, Jared Lascelles of Ipava, Illinois, was awarded the International Lineman’s Rodeo Scholarship sponsored by Snap-On Tools. During his sophomore year of high school, he saw linemen working on the power lines next to the road and decided that he wanted to pursue a career in the line trade.
“It looked thrilling and dangerous, and also it would benefit my community,” Lascelles said in his letter to the ILRA.
Finally, Levi Steele from McLeansboro, Illinois, won the Gaylord Robinson Scholarship. Steele says he knew he wanted to work as a lineman from the time he was about 12 years old.
“We had some storms come through and a tree knocked down our pole,” Steele says. “I watched the linemen work for about two or three hours outside my house, and it seemed like an interesting field to get into.”
As the first aspiring lineman in his family, Steele says he initially learned about the trade by reading online articles,
visiting the local line trade school and then learning as much as he could about it. Once he enrolled in school, his instructor encouraged him to apply for the scholarship.
Nineteen-year-old Steele says it was a cool scholarship to win — not just for the money he received toward helping with the schooling but also for the prestige.
“Getting that title in this trade and industry is a big deal,” says Steele, who is working toward a degree in applied science. “It’s very important to be able to be one of the International Lineman Scholars, and it will definitely help me pay for my tuition and schooling.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about the scholarships and the 2016 competition, visit www.linemansrodeokc.com.