What follows is an interview Peg Caudle conducted with Willard Richard on November 15, 1976 in preparation for the company’s 60th Anniversary. Mr. Richardson retired in 1977 after 40 years with the company.
R: Mr. Henningson was a very good salesman when there was work to be had. He was getting quite a few of these REA projects, and that’s why he need more help, and that’s why I came on board. At that time, there was an attorney down in Lincoln by the name of Abe Sorenson, which incidentally was the father of Ted Sorenson who was a favorite of Ted Kennedy. Henningson and Sorenson used to team up and go together, or if there were too many meetings coming up, they would split up and recommend each other as engineer and attorney for projects. So that went on for quite a few years.
I brought a couple of snapshots from home. This is a typical survey crew for staking REA lines. That one says Howard County, so that would be about 1938 or 1939.
C: Do you know where it was taken?
R: I think that would be on the Eastern Nebraska Public Power District. That’s the one out of Tecumseh [Nebraska]. But they were all pretty typical. It was country work and that was pretty typical dress for those days – pitch helmets. You see, in the summer time, it gets hot out there. And the kind of fence posts the farmers could afford in those days…just hewn fence posts. We would do the staking and the contractor would come along and install the poles and build the line and hook them up to the farmhouse.
C: What was involved in this REA work as far as design?
R: Well, we had to determine the kind of conductor to be used. The size of it that would carry the amount of power the customers would need. And then, depending on the size of the conductor, we’d have to determine what size poles to use. The poles were sized by class like Class 7, Class 6, Class 5. The lower the number, the bigger the pole. And then also we would have to decide how high the poles would be because the line, in order to meet the safety codes, would have to clear the ground at all points by a certain minimum height. As we would go up and down the hill, we would have to space the poles accordingly. And that took some design. We had charts we went by and we had little hand levels we would use to kind of judge as to where the level spots were and how much of a hill there was or how much of a dip. The more the dip, the more we could space the poles. And it would take fewer poles per mile, and thereby the cost of construction would be less because contractor’s bid on the basis on installing a pole and installing so many feet of conductor. So the fewer poles we used, the fewer dollars were spent to build a line.
C: Was Beatrice his [Henningson’s] first REA job?
R: Well, approximately so. He was doing a little consulting work on a couple of REA projects clear out in Western Nebraska – Gering and Mitchell. But they hadn’t gotten under construction yet. They were built shortly after I came with the company.
C: It’s been said that at one time Henningson headed every REA project in the state of Nebraska. Is that correct?
R: Well, that was in the early days, before competition reared its head. That could have been probably about 1938 or 1939. Then an engineer by the name of Ray Reed who came into this area and started getting some projects. And then after that, there was another company called Midwestern Engineering Company out of Lincoln that formed and they got some of the projects. We had the majority of them in Nebraska over the years.
C: Didn’t you at one time work for Midwestern Engineering?
R: No, I had applied for a job with them and I never did get the job, and that’s when I came with Henningson. But later on, the Midwestern Engineering Company went bankrupt and we bought out its assets, which were a typewriter and a few transits.
C: When you and Chuck were taken in as partners, that’s about when the firm started changing and growing. How did you and Chuck structure that and get it going?
R: As I recall, he [Henningson] offered to sell Chuck and myself each a third interest in the company. We were, of course, the board of directors and we changed from a proprietorship to a corporation. As my memory goes, I paid $2,500 for my third. We eventually bought Mr. Henningson out for $60,000.
C: Many have said that you and Chuck sort of acted as a “check and balance” to each other. That if the firm had totally belonged to one or the other of you, that it wouldn’t have become what it did, that it was the two of you in concert from the time you took over from Henningson. How do you see that interplay between you and Chuck and the way you each contributed or balanced out each other?
R: Yes, I’ve been told that many times by people outside the company, too. Well, basically as I see it Chuck is the salesman, the front man, the leader of the company. And I’ve been the person who stayed home and tended the store, you might say. I took care of the details; I’m more of a detail person – to see that the work got done and on time and so forth. Of course, he was involved in that, too, but that’s as I see it. Anyway, it has worked and as a partnership. We call it a partnership even thought it’s a corporation. When two people work together for a long time, many times it doesn’t work. But this one worked.
C: When you and Chuck took over when Henningson had retired, tell me about some of the bull sessions that I assume you must have had. I mean, here you were young and the owners of an engineering company, deciding which way it was going to go and what you were going to do with it. What were your visions? Could you ever have anticipated then that you would end up with what you have now?
R: Never. It just sort of crept up on us. One thing would lead to another and we would just take it as it came, one day at a time.
C: You didn’t really have a “forward plan,” so to speak?
R: Not anything in writing. Later on we would have these staff meetings and talk about a five year plan and put some things down, which is what we still do. But in those days, it was mostly conversation. We were so busy keeping the wolf away from the door…hiring people to get the work done…that we just didn’t take the time to do it.
C: When did you learn to fly?
R: The same year Chuck did. I was 40 years old or thereabouts.
C: Was this so that you could get out to the communities where you were doing business?
R: Well, like you say, one of our bull sessions was the fact that maybe we ought to get an airplane so that we can get to our places faster and spread ourselves a little thinner that way. So we contacted the airport and they happened to have a nice little bonanza plane that had been traded in by Mutual of Omaha. So it was available and it fit us, you know. But we said we’re too old to learn. Of course, we weren’t and they sold us on the idea of learning, and so we did.
I soloed in that first Bonanza, and so did Chuck, and from then on, we kept on going.
C: Do you still fly?
R: Not personally. My work is mostly closer to home. It was really a chore for me to fly because I didn’t fly enough to stay really proficient, and if you don’t feel comfortable things can go wrong more easily. And I didn’t have enough errands to make it pay…you know, just to go out and fly for flying itself isn’t economical. I’m kind of frugal that way, and I figured that was a waste of money.
C: You use the word “frugal.” Tell me about your frugality and the effect you think it has had on the company.
R: Oh, I suppose I could say maybe it’s held the company back some, I don’t know.
C: Held it back or together? Which would you say?
R: Well, you never know. You don’t know what could have happened if we had done differently. I just don’t know.
C: You do feel you have been conservative, though?
R: Yes, I think so.
C: The conservative Democrat working with the liberal Republican!
R: How about that! I realize you have to spend money to make money, but you can spend it prudently, and that’s what I hope we have done and what we have tried to do. I was raised with parents who didn’t have any money, and I learned to use the pencil down to the last nub. In fact, the folks around here will probably tell you about that – the pencil extensions I used to buy for them and told them to use them down to the nub.
C: Not too long ago, I believe, you sold your stock back to the company.
R: Yes, with the understanding that the company would resell it to key employees, which it has done.
C: What prompted you to do this?
R: Well, I guess I had two reasons. The first and probably the foremost is the fact that Mr. Henningson took me in as an outsider and permitted me to prosper with the company, and I felt that I wanted others to do the same.
And the other reason was that I felt it would be good for the company to have other key people in it. Because when you “have a piece of the rock” so to speak, or a piece of the action, I don’t care how earnest or loyal an employee can be without some ownership there’s just something that part ownership does to a person that makes them blossom even more. I think that’s been proven out. Our people are just so much more enthusiastic, and as a result the company has prospered a great deal these last four our five years – over and above what it had done before.
C: Do I understand you’re planning to retire soon?
R: Yes, next year I plan to retire.
C: Does it make you feel sad to leave the company after all this time. It’s practically been your whole life.
R: Well, I guess it really depends on how one looks at it. It can be an exciting new experience to leave a company that has grown and prospered, and the workers are happy and are glad that they are here. That makes me feel good, too, when they feel that way. I could look at it the other way, with sadness…tears in my eyes, I suppose, but I’m not going to walk away that way.