Condensing the experiences of a 43-year career at Cleveland Utilities — the last 24 of which have been at the company helm — into a single sentence is not easy for the retiring Tom Wheeler, who is now only a few days away from flicking off his office lights for the final time.
But if he did, the thought would go something like this: “The weather for me, once retired, will be kind of a non-factor.”
It sounds like more of a Jim Cantore send-off from The Weather Channel, but for Wheeler — and an entire CU workforce, for that matter — the fury of Mother Nature has led to most of the utility’s most demanding challenges during a career that started as a distribution engineer and finished in the president’s office.
“There’s several events that stick out in my mind ... even to the dates and hours,” Wheeler reminisced from his near-barren quarters where four decades worth of certificates, recognitions and awards have been removed from busy walls and a lonely desk once cluttered with piles of reports and stacks of plans now awaits its next pilot.
Without referring to typed notes, a journal or even a hastily written list, Wheeler pointed to some key periods in Cleveland history that challenged its people and defined the role of a public utility company. All, save one, are related to the roller coaster called weather.
- March 17, 1973: “We had the 500-year floods. That was the first big weather event I ever experienced on my job at Cleveland Utilities after coming here in 1971. Not many people remember that period of time. We saw flooding [to the degree] that Mouse Creek actually came over Keith Street. I’ve never seen that since, even with all the rains and floods that we’ve had ... nothing like 1973.”
- April 3, 1974: “We had the two tornadoes in one day. I sat out at the East Cleveland substation and watched the second tornado come within a quarter-of-a-mile of the substation. I sat there on the steps and watched it.”
- Winter 1978: “We had the cold-weather snap that winter where we had 30 days where it never got above freezing.”
- March 12-13, 1993: “We had the blizzard ... 21 to 23 inches of snow that I never thought I’d see. Probably the worst thing that we had, as far as the utilities, came on that Saturday night, March 12. The water pressure in Cleveland went to zero. We were sitting here for 36 hours with a city that had no ability to fight a fire. I worried for those 36 hours that we were going to burn the city down, but we didn’t.”
- Year 2000: “[It wasn’t weather-related] but jumping from the Blizzard of ’93, we had Y2K in Year 2000. We thought the water plants and electric generators were going to start running backward when the computers messed up. We spent four years preparing for Y2K ... but we didn’t have any problems.”
- April 27, 2011: “As I began getting closer and closer to retirement, thinking I might escape anything else, we had the five tornadoes. Of all those [previous] different experiences, no doubt the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, were the worst thing we’ve ever had to deal with. It was a real testament to the employees of Cleveland Utilities that they were able to deal with that. We did almost nine months of work in two weeks.”
The murderous twisters, which took nine lives in Bradley County, destroyed about 25 percent of CU’s electric grid. Had the utility been left to stagger to its feet alone with no outside help, Wheeler said repairs to the mangled electric infrastructure would have taken nine months. But as many as 30 emergency crews, some traveling from as far away as Orlando, Fla., swarmed into Cleveland to restore full operation within two weeks.
Wheeler will never forget it. Nor will he ever underestimate the power of Mother Nature and the potential impact of her fury on a community and its utility company.
“It was quite an effort,” he reflected on the unprecedented utility, and Bradley County, recovery.
It is also why sleep will come easier with his retirement. He won’t miss the Southeast region’s helter-skelter weather patterns as relates to work, nor will he cringe in quite the same way when emergency watches are placed over the city and county. He’ll still show the same concern as anyone would, but he won’t feel the heavy weight of Cleveland and Bradley County’s response should disaster again rear its ugly head.
Those were the tough times, the events that mark a career. And he won’t miss them.
Once retired, he also won’t miss the late-night phone calls.
“One thing I won’t miss is getting the calls at 2:30 in the morning that ‘my lights are out’ or ‘we’ve had a car to hit a transmission pole on Keith Street’ or ‘we’ve had a damaging lightning storm’ ... anything weather-related,” Wheeler offered with a pensive smile. “I certainly won’t miss that.”
He added, “It’s just one of the things we do and we get used to it, but it can be very demanding sometimes. I enjoyed participating in that part of it, but I don’t mind giving it up at all.”
Snow, and forecasts of snow, will no longer make him flinch in retirement.
“I really didn’t mind seeing it snow as long as it didn’t snow over 3 inches,” Wheeler laughed. “I wanted just enough for it to get pretty and then ... that’s good.”
He borrowed a comment from a former co-worker who retired several years ago. Wheeler pointed to Fred Murphy, who managed the Water Division and remembered him saying upon his retirement, “‘I’ll no longer have to worry about if it’s too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry.’ All of those things affect us (utility company) in different ways.”
What he will miss in retirement are the people, the professional relationships and the chance to sit down with community movers and shakers to create opportunity for growth.
“I’ve worked with the better part of three different generations,” Wheeler cited. “When I came to work here in 1971, I was working with a generation that was kind of working their way out. Then, I spent a number of years with that middle generation that was about my age. And then, for the last 10 years, I’ve been dealing with a much younger generation. So, it’s about three different generations. I’ve enjoyed all of them. It’s been interesting to see how things change. People change, but I’ve enjoyed that part of the job.”
He’ll also miss the engineering part of the work; that is, the role of problem solving.
“It was always exciting to sit down with a new industry or a new developer or some group, or some person who was doing something in Bradley County ... and to work through their project with them,” Wheeler noted. “That was always something I looked forward to.”
In spite of his countless stories about the weather, Wheeler acknowledged one of his first, and biggest, challenges came when the old Cleveland City Commission chose to merge the formerly exclusive city electric and water systems. Their unification created what is now Cleveland Utilities. Wheeler’s personal challenge was that he was an electrical engineer and suddenly he was being thrust into a role to help lead the historic merger of utilities.
“When I came to work here, I came to work for the Cleveland Electric System,” he said. “It was electric only. I had no knowledge that the bulk of my career would also be involved in water and wastewater services. In 1978, the Cleveland Electric System was merged with the Cleveland Water System to form Cleveland Utilities.”
Wheeler added, “My life, in 1978, changed drastically. All of a sudden we had the responsibility also of water and wastewater. We had a lot of challenges there.”
One was the original reason that the systems were merged; that is, to comply with the new Federal Clean Water Act of 1971.
“Once passed, the Federal Clean Water Act really began to put the demands on cities to clean up their wastewater problems,” Wheeler said. And there were plenty of problems.
“You can look back at the histories,” he noted. “The cities were having all kinds of issues with their wastewater systems. The city commissioners (in Cleveland) at that time felt like we had the expertise at the utilities to manage all the projects that would be needed over the next 20 years to comply with the requirements of the Clean Water Act.”
Over the years, it has been a chore for Wheeler and his CU personnel. But it continues today, as evidenced by the 2-year-old SCOPE 10 initiative, an exhaustive, $30 million rehabilitation of the utility’s existing sewer system. SCOPE 10 is an acronym for Strategic Commitment to Protect the Environment and it’s a continuation of CU’s ongoing work to maintain compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act. Forty-two years after its passage into law, the Congressional action remains at the forefront of utility companies’ water and wastewater initiatives across America.
Even when Cleveland Utilities began its response to the new laws, Wheeler never suspected it would dominate his time.
“I’ve spent the better part of my career doing that [complying with the Clean Water Act],” Wheeler said. “I guess if I had to split up my time, probably 60 percent has been working on wastewater issues, and probably 20 percent on water and 20 percent on electric.”
That’s a pretty tall order for a young man two years out of college who came to Cleveland with credentials in electrical engineering.
“We’ve done a lot,” Wheeler said. “We’ve put a lot of resources into improving. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of ... is the progress we have made in putting in a first-class wastewater system in Cleveland, and complying with our [NPDES] permit and regulations.”
CU’s improvements in wastewater compliance since 1980 in some ways have been off the charts when considering the utility’s abilities then compared to its operations now.
Wheeler believes he is leaving Cleveland Utilities in good shape. In fact, it’s a reason his decision to retire — although a difficult one — was not as tough as he thought it would be.
“During the time I’ve been here we’ve built the electric system,” he said. “We’ve expanded it. We’ve improved it. We’ve improved it from the standpoint of reliability. It’s a much more reliable system today. It has the ability to carry a lot more electrical load. We can absorb a lot of growth electrically because of where the system is.”
The same can be said for the utility’s other two divisions.
“With the recent expansion in the Hiwassee Utilities Commission water plant, we’re in good shape to supply the county in water,” Wheeler stressed. HUC is an independent utility district that provides water to Bradley and McMinn counties, but it is operated via contract by Cleveland Utilities.
“The [CU] wastewater treatment plant is in good shape,” he added. “It has extra capacity. There are no foreseeable shortages in any of those three utilities (electric, water and wastewater) over the next few years. Of course, one big development or one big consumer (a reference to a huge incoming industry or other commercial-type operation) could change that.”
But in the absence of a single, giant utility user coming to town, Wheeler feels good about the immediate future.
“Right now, I would project we could go five to 10 years without any major additions to our electric, water and wastewater infrastructure,” he suggested.
Another reason Wheeler feels good about CU’s future is the credentials of its incoming president and CEO, Ken Webb, senior vice president and CFO who has almost 30 years’ experience with the local utility and as CU’s primary accountant.
“I have always had a lot of confidence in what Ken’s been able to do,” Wheeler said. “I’ve said many times ... there are many important things we do here like building new plants, new lines ... but nothing is any more important than taking care of the money, taking care of the funds.”
Webb’s in good company, Wheeler stressed.
“Ken’s got a good group in accounting. We’ve got excellent technical people. We have many degreed engineers on staff. We’ve got competent people out in the field. We’ve got competent people in our water plant, our treatment plant and wastewater plant. I feel good about what I’m leaving.”
He added, “These people we have, the personnel we have, they know how to run the system. They’re professionals and they only know one thing ... and that’s to do a good job.”
When Wheeler steps into his final meeting Thursday of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities, he’ll do so with mixed emotions. First, he’ll be saddened by knowing it will be his final CU interaction with fellow professionals whose passion for community service rivals his own. But second, he’ll breathe a sigh of relief to know that his 32-year streak of perfect board attendance remains intact.
It dates back to 1981 when the utility board was formed by the old City Commission following the merger of the electric and utility systems.
“I have never missed a board meeting,” Wheeler said. “I’ve been to every single meeting of the board since 1981 ... either as an engineer or assistant manager, and then these last 24 years as the manager. I’m kind of proud of that.”
In retirement, Wheeler and his wife, Vicki, plan to travel domestically. He also figures to catch up on some long-awaited home chores.
“There’s still a lot of places in the United States we want to see,” he stressed. “We’re just apt at the drop of a hat to take off and go see some of the sites in the U.S. I’ve got a couple of projects around the house that I’ve been putting off. I’ll have a chance now to get started on those.”
He added, “I figure I’ve got enough to carry me for a couple of years. After that, I’ll re-evaluate.”
And he’ll do so with a smile on his face.
(Next: In Part 2 to be published in Thursday’s edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner, Wheeler will talk about what he sees as future goals for Cleveland Utilities and needs within the Cleveland and Bradley County community.)