Princeton Public Utilities Electric Superintendent Jon Brooks retired Tuesday after 39 years of service to the community.
He fondly remembers his first days on the job, which were spent riding on the back of a garbage truck.
“Jobs were hard to find, because the economy wasn’t that good,” Brooks said, recalling his move to Princeton from Sedan, Minnesota, a tiny town near Glenwood.
When he arrived, Brooks stopped at the Princeton Public Works office and inquired about employment.
That city department wasn’t hiring, but someone suggested Brooks head over to Princeton Public Utilities and see General Manager Harold Stephun.
“Harold didn’t have anything, but said come back in a week or so,” Brooks said. “I did. At the time, the utility was responsible for hauling trash. Harold told me, ‘When these two weeks are up, I’m probably not going to have work for you.’ I thought, ‘Well, two weeks is better than nothing.’ ”
That’s when another employment opportunity presented itself to Brooks.
Two power plant workers were getting ready to go on vacation.
Brooks lined up work in the power plant for four weeks. Stephun then paid him another visit.
“Harold came over and I thought he was going to tell me he didn’t have any more work for me,” Brooks said. “I reported to the line crew the following Monday.”
In almost four decades of employment, Brooks has worked with five general managers: Stephun, Dale Dunham, Dave Thompson, and Connie Wangen.
His most recent general manager is Keith Butcher, who was hired earlier this year.
‘It’s been an interesting 39 years,” Brooks said. “Back then, our summer peak [requests for power] were probably 2 megawatts. Now its around 12 megawatts.”
Brooks started out on the ground, getting tools and materials for linemen.
“I basically learned how to climb power poles during my coffee breaks,” he said. When asked if there was a special trick to the task, Brooks replied, “Not falling.”
Brooks’ line work experiences include a mid-1980s storm that packed 120 mile-per-hour straight line winds that tore through Princeton.
“When it was over, you saw broken and shattered poles and downed wires in any direction that you look out from the shop,” Brooks recalled. “The entire town was a mess. It took us five days to get everyone’s electricity restored. We worked from 5 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. at night. You’d sleep for a couple hours, then come back.”
Brooks said during his years working as a lineman for Princeton Public Utilities, he never experienced an ice storm.
New electrical switchgear required a large addition to the backside of the generation building, Brooks recalled.
“For a long time, our system was 4,160 volts,” Brooks said. “When we did the plant upgrade, and an upgrade at the south substation, we put in provisions to increase the voltage to 12,470 volts. And the two substations was a big change for us.”
Working overnight shifts in the generation plant helped Brooks gain additional utility experience and build his knowledge base, he said.
“We had regular plant operators who would work 12 days on and two days off, so when they had their two days off, I worked in the plant, and on weekends, too.”
Back then, Princeton Public Utilities’ generation units were used to provide peaking power and back-up electricity as they do today, but the plant building was used as a dispatch point for the fire department, Brooks recalled.
“It kind of ended up there because the plant was staffed 24 hours a day,” he said. “The departments weren’t tied to the counties at that time. We had all of the alarm systems in the plant, including a whole wall of additional bank alarms.”
Brooks said Princeton Public Utilities employees used to dispense gasoline for use in city vehicles.
“We did all of the departments – police, streets, you name it,” he said. “We used to have gas pumps right out in front of our building.”
Serving the community of Princeton was not only important during working hours as a public power employee, but afterwards as well, Brooks said.
“It became a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s my job and my crew’s job to keep the lights on. The people of this community mean a lot to all of us.”
Helping the PPU front office staff work with customers was a Brooks specialty.
“The ladies in the front office would have me come up for certain customer situations,” he said. “I’d go out and talk to them, and after a couple of minutes, they wouldn’t be angry anymore. And when we are out working among the public, yeah, we have stuff to do, but if our customers want to talk, we listen.”
Brooks said the community of Princeton grew quite a bit in his 39 years on the job, but there was a time when he knew just about everyone in town.
Computer use was a huge industry change during Brooks’ time as a Princeton Public Utilities employee, he said, adding the tools of the trade also have improved.
“One of the biggest changes has been safety,” he added. “The industry wasn’t as nearly as safe as it is now. One of the original trucks that I used to run had an open side on the bucket. If you hit that opening, you go out flying, and if you wore any sort of safety belt at all, it was just a waist belt. Now, it’s a full-body harness.”
Brooks learned from co-workers before becoming a supervisor.
“I became the assistant line foreman in 1988,” he said. “That summer, the line foreman had a heart attack, and had triple by-pass surgery. He was gone for six months. I kind of got thrown into the fire and learned along the way.”
In the early 1990s, Brooks said he took over as line foreman.
Along the way, his job title changed to electrical superintendent sometime in the mid-2000s.
After 39 years working for Princeton Public Utilities, Brooks said it’s important for the public to remember when the power does go out, there are utility crews on the job working quickly and safely as possible to restore service.
“Those crews out there working in adverse conditions,” he said.“They will get your power back on eventually.”
Brooks said his retirement plans include a little traveling, and spending more time rifle shooting, which is his biggest hobby.
“I shoot at the West Branch Gun Club,” he said. “We shoot out there during the winter, because they have summer trap.”
Brooks added he’s going to miss his Princeton Public Utilities co-workers a great deal how that he’s retiring.
He won’t miss the emergency calls and dispatches at 3 a.m., however
“In our business, if there a thunderstorm coming, you always wonder if you are going to have to come into work,” he said. “It’s going to be nice to sit back and just watch one.”