After nearly 46 years at Ohio Edison, Friday was literally last call for Howard Call.
It was retirement day for Call, whose family owned the last working farm in Stow that is now part of a housing subdivision. His father was among the farmers who established the Summit County Fair.
He retired as Ohio Edison’s director of operations.
His team of 790 employees — from linemen to engineers — covered 7,000 square miles, serving 1.2 million customers, and was responsible for keeping the lights on.
“My staff and I give 180 percent. I give credit to them and I’ll take 20 percent,” Call said.
Mark Durbin, spokesman for FirstEnergy Corp., the parent of Ohio Edison, said many career employees reach 30-plus years’ service, but nearly 46 is rare. Durbin said the average age of a FirstEnergy employee is 46.
“That makes me feel old,” Call laughed, when told of the fact while sitting in his timber-framed house at the edge of the Call’s Farm subdivision off Fishcreek and Call roads in Stow. He and his wife, Theresa, built their dream retirement home in 2008 next to the original family farmhouse, where his parents, Charles, 91, and Jean, 87, still live. Call’s house is on the site of the old big barn.
“I wanted something to symbolize the farm,” he said of his house.
Call’s first experiences with Ohio Edison came when he was a boy on his family’s dairy farm, which also sold eggs and maple syrup. Call’s Farm was founded in 1803 and had four working generations on its 200 acres before they sold the majority of the land to developers in 2001 for a subdivision. Other parts of the original farm on the other side of Fishcreek Road also became housing developments and Fishcreek Elementary School in the early 1960s.
The family quit working the land in 1992 and turned it into a nonworking tree farm for land preservation, Call said.
“I was gone and dad went to work for state government,” he said. His sister had relocated to Dayton.
Though developers had been pestering Charles Call for 25 to 30 years to sell his farmland, Howard Call said his dad wanted to do it his way and when he was ready. He eventually sold to a developer who honored the family’s wishes in creating subdivisions with winding roads. A replica of the Call’s farm silo sits in the middle of one housing development. As a youth, Howard would go to the Ohio Edison’s Kent Line Shop to pick up old utility poles for use on the farm. (There’s a brush with sports greatness, too: Pro Football Hall of Famer, Stow native and two-time Miami Dolphin Super Bowl running back Larry Csonka worked at Call’s Farm as a farmhand in the early 1960s).
“We used the poles on the farm for building in fence posts. Good utility poles have a nice life,” he said. “I would see the big trucks and the grizzly old men and it was very interesting.”
Call said he knew as a young boy that there was no future in farming as Stow developed, and the work at the Ohio Edison yard looked intriguing. So at age 18 in May 1967, he started at the Kent yards as a groundsman, which Call says meant “you did everything and were the go-fer.”
Over the years, Call worked a variety of jobs — in the Akron underground department burying utility wires and later moving into management. He spent seven weeks on strike in the 1970s while working in the underground department. In 2001, Call went to Toledo Edison and eventually became director of services before returning to Ohio Edison as director of operations in 2008 during the Hurricane Ike storm.
“I was looking for another challenge,” said Call, 64, who has three grown children and 11 grandchildren. “The company had poor reliability in Toledo [before his tenure]. Ohio Edison is the flagship of the FirstEnergy fleet.”
Restoring power during outages can be a demanding job. Asked whether his phone often rang 24 hours a day, Call said, “If all systems work together, it allows me to come home at night and turn off the phone and go to bed.”
Still, Call’s phone rings plenty.
“You can’t believe the people who have my cell number when the power is out,” laughed Call. “It will ring after I retire.”
Storms and hurricanes can be like a Super Bowl to a utility company. Call doesn’t know how many storms he has responded to, but he’s been to Florida three times, Mississippi, Michigan many times, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois and Indiana. He would quickly pack a bag as a storm was approaching an area and not return for days. The longest deployment was for 18 days during Hurricane Sandy.
Call was on what are called “go teams” during a storm. A crew might originate within one company or become a collaboration of employees from a variety of regions.
Call and other leaders went to New Jersey two days before Sandy to start to plan.
“It was like putting together a war plan,” he said. In all, about 350 Ohio Edison personnel (including 130 linemen) assisted in New Jersey, led by Call.
“You just part the sea and those most critical jobs get pulled together when you come back. Most customers will understand.”
Call managed restoration efforts in New Jersey with about 3,000 linemen.
Crews essentially live in pop-up cities, with temporary housing and food provided.
“Having been part of the storm-base group, I have taken line crews everywhere. It’s been kinda in my blood,” he said.
The worst local storm to hit Northeast Ohio was Hurricane Ike in 2008, Call said.
“It came into Ohio as a Category 1,” Call said. There were 650,000 people without power for eight to nine days.
In those situations, Call said, “A successful day is when we’ve done right by our customers and done it safely.
“Safety is one of my biggest things. This is a dangerous business,” he said.
Call said priorities are set, getting big, critical institutions such as hospitals and other infrastructure customers back online “so we can pump water” and take care of people, he said. “When you look at that process, somebody is going to be last.”
But, Call said, he always tried to make sure that when a residential area was the last to be restored in a previous outage, he would try to get them earlier next time.
Call said he decided about a year and a half ago that he would retire by April 1. “It’s the realization you have that I’ll miss this the most,” he said. “This company has raised my family and provided a good living for me. It’s the fellowship I’m going to miss.”
When he started, utility crews would consist of six to seven men doing very physical labor. Now, most trucks are two-men crews with better equipment and some trucks are even able to be staffed by one person.
The next call
Call chose Friday as his last day — just a few weeks shy of the actual 46th anniversary.
It was Good Friday in many senses for Call — and his 12th wedding anniversary, too.
The Calls said in retirement they will continue their work with the nonprofit Ohio Fair Managers and the Summit County Fair, where Theresa is an officer. Call’s father was one of the key directors for the Summit County Fair in 1956 and served as president of the fair for many years, and Call served on the board as well.
In 1998, the Calls took on the part-time executive director position for the Ohio Fair Managers, a lobbying and educational group. They travel to the various Ohio fairs and group meetings.
Charles E. Jones, senior vice president and president, FirstEnergy Utilities, said Call will be greatly missed.
“He has been a dedicated employee, mentor, coach, and has provided an example that I hope our younger leaders will follow for the next 40 years.
“His can-do attitude was infectious. I remember a fire in downtown Akron many years ago where Howard single-handedly ran from manhole to manhole to isolate our underground electric system from possible damage. It was symbolic of his approach to his whole career at Ohio Edison and FirstEnergy.”
A replacement for Call has not yet been named.
But that doesn’t worry him.
“The lights will stay on. I have a good team,” he said.
And when his lights go out during a storm after retirement?
“I know where the stations are,” he said. “After the storm’s over, I’ll ask, ‘How did you do?’ In every event, we learn.”