Vietz, crew foreman and “hero,” retires after 41 years
Linemen are sometimes considered heroes because, at times, they work in dangerous conditions for long hours to restore electric service after a snow and ice storm. To residents in the Sandy River Drive development in northwest Bismarck, Capital Electric Cooperative Crew Foreman Les Vietz is a hero — because he helped save their homes during the flood of 2013.
Vietz, a dedicated cooperative employee for 41 years, is retiring Feb. 1.
When the Missouri River spilled over its banks and began pooling, residents relied on sand bags and sump pumps to protect their homes. The water eventually flooded transformers, vacuum fault interrupters and miles of underground conductor, and the Sandy River Drive development lost power for 10 days. More than 20 homes lost electric service, jeopardizing pumping efforts and requiring expensive replacement generators for power.
In a monumental effort to save their homes from devastation, area residents worked with Capital Electric’s linemen to implement a method of restoring power even though the impacted electrical infrastructure was underwater. Under the guidance of veteran Lineman/Crew Foreman Vietz, they ordered an iron frame and ferried it by pontoon, along with a crane and sandbags, to an electrical site that had a submerged circuit breaker and switching equipment. After cutting off partial electric service to eliminate public safety risks, the linemen hoisted the frame over the circuit breaker and created a cofferdam around the equipment. They pumped out the water and rerouted switching equipment, which restored power to impacted homes. The temporary fix worked until linemen could return to the site after the water receded and make permanent repairs.
“Les has been a model employee for Capital Electric Cooperative. One time in his career where he really shined was the flood,” says Rick Dressler, operations supervisor for Capital Electric. “Les did a phenomenal job getting the power back on and saving people’s homes.”
The go-to guy for work and home
Les graduated from McClusky High School and the Bismarck Junior College line school. He moved to Dickinson and took a job with Montana-Dakota Utilities, working as an apprentice for four years. He moved to Bismarck and accepted a job at Capital Electric as temporary help in 1976. The position, and his journeyman lineman status, soon became permanent.
A lot of what he learned was self-taught, on the job.
“What was nice about working here, I had the time and opportunity to learn on my own. I was never pressured to hurry up and get the job done,” he says.
Les has seen countless changes at the cooperative since 1976. In the good-old days, Vietz left the co-op in the morning with his crescent wrench, hard hat and hooks. Now, he also carries a laptop so he can troubleshoot disturbances in electric service by connecting his laptop to a test meter and programming the breaker settings and related electronics.
The only crew foreman at Capital Electric, Les oversees the linemen and helps build and maintain the overhead and underground distribution system. He also helped build at least seven of the co-op’s substations, and was instrumental in the installation of their TWACS and SCADA systems.
Les also works alongside the linemen to fix the occasional power outage. Out of the countless restorations he’s worked over the years, the one he remembers most had nothing to do with inclement weather or late hours. It was memorable because after the power was restored, a little girl came out of the house and wrapped her arms around his legs in gratitude.
Both in the field and at the office, Rick says Les treats everybody fairly and with respect.
“He taught me everything I know about this trade. I owe a lot to him,” he says. “He’s the type of guy who can fix anything. That’s what we’re going to miss about him. His mechanical skills, and of course, his sense of humor.”
Lead Lineman John Frey says Les is his go-to guy whenever he has a question.
“There are always different ways of doing a job, and it’s nice to get another opinion. Les is always the first guy for me to call and say, ‘What do you think about this, or how would you do that?’ He has a lot of technical knowledge, and whenever there was something new, he always figured out a way to do it and take the lead role. I’ll probably still call him once in a while after he retires,” he says. “Les is always willing to help you out with anything.”
That help extended into many of the linemen’s personal lives. Lead Lineman Brad Johnson says Les is the type of guy you could work with all day, and the next, go fishing together on their day off. From teaching him much about the line trade to fixing his boat on occasion, Brad says Les has been a leader, mentor and friend.
“He’ll be missed. That’s for sure,” he says.
Les says he has had a good life working at Capital Electric, and that he has enjoyed the camaraderie of the line crews. This parting thought was taken from one of the many Top 10 lists Les wrote over the years. He reflected, “You know you have been [at Capital Electric] for 40 years when you start realizing it has been a good way to make an honest living and be able to end it with a nice retirement.”
Thank you, Les. You’re going to be missed.