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The Pirkey Dozen: End of an era

by on June 23, 2022

In the summer of 1982, a soon-to-be constructed power plant in Hallsville, Texas, offered the promise of opportunity for 30 young men eager to make their mark in the world.

These men joined SWEPCO as apprentice machinists for the H.W. Pirkey Power Plant. Their job entailed repairing and maintaining plant equipment and structures, a trade they learned together as Pirkey was built.

The experience bonded them, and they came to rely on each other for advice, assistance, and encouragement. Forty years later, 12 of these original 30 apprentices will be on hand for the plant’s final operation on March 31, 2023.

“We’ve had a lot of fun and challenging times together,” said Brent Ogden, now the plant’s maintenance superintendent. “We’re one big family, and I know we’ll continue to be lifelong friends even after the plant closes.”

Ogden, who transferred to Turk Power Plant in 2010, planned to retire in March 2022 but reconsidered when he was offered the chance to return to Pirkey for its final year of operation.

“There were several reasons I chose to come back,” he said. “But a big part of it was being with the guys I started with when the plant shuts down.”

Franklin’s Follies

In the early days, the group came to be known as Franklin’s Follies, a nod to their supervisor and later VP of Generation Paul Franklin, who guided their training and first steps in the industry.

“That’s what everyone labeled us because he had to raise a bunch of kids,” Ogden said with a laugh. “I was the oldest at 22.”

Some had heard about the job through family friends while others learned about it in trade classes.

“I was in a class learning how to do industrial electrical wiring when a counselor came in and told us SWEPCO wanted to hire 30 people to send to college to be machinists,” said Wade Hicks, a station machinist. “I’d never stepped foot in a machine shop, but it sounded like something that could be a lifelong career.”

Their first two years on the job were spent in the classroom. The apprentices had on-the-job instruction at a training building on the plant site, as well as machine shop classes at Kilgore College, where they learned drafting and technical physics, among other things.

“We were required to maintain an 85 average in all our classes,” said Ben Craig, maintenance supervisor. “In the summer, we would tear apart old gas plant pumps and check clearances and learn how to do maintenance on them.”

That knowledge transferred to the plant in the fall of 1984 when they began to test the new equipment.

“It was exciting knowing that we were putting this thing online,” Ogden said. “We didn’t know what to expect. At first it was overwhelming to see all this big equipment and know we were going to have to maintain it. But the more we worked on it, the more it became a challenge we took pride in.”

Working together

One of the most memorable of those challenges was the time they repaired a low-pressure (LP) rotor on the steam turbine a few months after the plant began commercial operation.

“We immediately went into doing something that had been planned for the annual warranty inspection,” Craig said. “It was a scramble to get it done, but we were ready.”

He said the thing that made the experience so exciting was that the LP rotor – which rotates the turbine blades – had been off limits during their training days.

“Everyone was eager to tear into this thing because we couldn’t even get near it before,” he said.

Maintenance Supervisor Ricky Morris said they learned a lot from that repair, and it was an experience that helped them navigate future maintenance on LP rotors.

“We got where we could probably pull those blades off with our eyes closed,” he said.

But for Morris, the best memories occurred in the boiler.

He said a tube leak in the boiler could cause quite a bit of damage as it wasn’t detected until an operator heard it.

“Today, we’ve got acoustic monitoring systems that picks those up really quick, but back then, we relied on operators to hear them,” he said. “By the time you got in there, it was a pretty good size wreck, and we’d be in there for a week. It was hard work, but you’d carry on conversations, and we made a lot of good memories inside the boiler.”

Closing a chapter

Throughout the years, these men saw a lot of changes in not just plant maintenance but their own lives.

They started families, gained promotions, and celebrated milestones together over the years.

“Now, we’re the old dogs around the yard,” Craig said. “Not a day goes by that someone comes up with a question, and we say go ask Larry (Garrison), Keith (Bynum) or Ronnie (McBride). SWEPCO did a good a job of hiring good people. Looking back and knowing what we achieved together, it’s remarkable.”

THE PIRKEY DOZEN
Twelve apprentice machinists hired in 1982 who still work at Pirkey Power Plant
1. RICHARD ALLEE, senior operator
2. KEITH BYNUM, welder machinist
3. BEN CRAIG, maintenance supervisor
4. BRAD EPPERSON, energy production supervisor
5. LARRY GARRISON, station machinist C
6. WADE HICKS, station machinist C
7. RONNIE MCBRIDE, station machinist C
8. RICKY MORRIS, maintenance supervisor
9. BRENT OGDEN, maintenance superintendent
10. TOMY RUSHING, welder machinist
11. LANCE SCUDDAY, lignite equipment operator
12. MACK TIMMONS, energy production supervisor

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2 Comments
  1. J. Graham Dodson permalink

    This is a great story and boy does it bring back some great memories. I was in the SWEPCO Corporate Communications Dept. when the first ground was broken for the Pirkey Power Plant. We covered the construction of the plant from day one all the way through its days of operation. John Harris and I spent many days traveling to and from the plant writing stories and taking pictures of the plant and nearby lignite mining operation. I remember a story in our in-house Southwestern magazine about the hiring of these 30 young apprentices to work at the Pirkey Plant. One of my fondest memories is interviewing President John Turk from high atop the Pirkey Plant looking out over the broad East Texas landscape. I believe that video is somewhere in the AEP video archives. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the plant would still have years of life left were it not for current regulations. Congratulations to all of those young men who helped make the plant and SWEPCO great!

    >

  2. Kevin Dennis permalink

    Coal fired generation and its cousin gas fired have been the backbone of a great American economy for decades. Whether the wind blows or not, and whether the sun shines or not, they keep pushing out affordable, clean energy. My dad spent his career in coal fired plants after returning from WW2. I spent my 32 years with AEP in power generation. I took my turn sledge hammering the coal tubes in brutal winter weather to keep the coal moving. Whatever it took to keep houses warm and safe. Columbus recently had rolling brownouts. More will follow around the nation. As electric cars increase grid demand and dependable generation is removed from the grid, it doesn’t take a math PhD to figure out that equation. When weather extremes approached, AEP’s media folks used to assure everyone that we had plenty of power. Now they will be scrambling to tell people why there is not enough power. Wouldn’t want that job. God bless you all for providing a wonderful heritage!

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