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Retired Halifax utility workers to gather next week

Known by a variety of names — Virginia Public Service, Virginia Electric Power Company (VEPCO), Virginia Power and Dominion Power — the South Boston based utility company has been a fixture in the community for several decades.

 At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 11, many present and retired employees and their spouses plan to gather at Ernie’s Restaurant for a reunion.

According to former Vepconian Doc Clark who retired three years ago, the company has been around since the 40s. 

Before 1946 it was named Virginia Public Service, and in 1946 Virginia Power became Vepco, a name that stuck until the 70s when the company assumed the name of Virginia Power.

Virginia Power it stayed until the 1990s when it changed to the current company name -- Dominion Power.

Although it is currently located on North Main Street in South Boston, Virginia Power once was located downtown next to the old movie theatre – a location utility employees called their home away from home until 1953 when it moved to its present location.

Clark said he was an employee with the company for 39 years describing it as “a great family, great place to work, and time just flew by.”

In its prime, Virginia Power had over 100 employees, and according to Clark, “back then, it was all about hard manual labor.

“Everything was done manually. If you wanted new lines, you used a mule. Digging holes and setting poles were all done by hand, and each pole had to be climbed by hooks,” Clark recalled.

However, the company now uses state-of-the-art technology with utility work  changing dramatically over the years. 

Now the company owns bucket trucks, and nearly all trucks are equipped with computers inside.

“Very seldom does anyone go out to climb a pole anymore,” Clark said, with one employee being able to set a pole on his own. 

Matter of fact, Clark said almost every job now can be accomplished by one person, thanks to technology.

Virginia Power was once the leading electric company. Now it is leading in technology, according to Clark. 

The company also has become very diversified with the use of coal and gas.

“Now there is very little labor, and the technology is great,” he added.

Due to advances in modern technology through the years and economic conditions and reorganization throughout the company, Virginia Power today has fewer than 30 employees.

Some of the managers who have stood out over the years in Virginia Power’s South Boston history include Walter Matthews, Dale Tetterton, Jim Hamilton, Norman Bates, Bucky Pryor, Wade Briggs, John Smatlack, Rusty Steel and J. H. Cline.

“Hamilton stood out. He was military,” Clark said, recalling how in the 70s he passed down a rule that long hair was not approved. 

“So Cline told some of us older guys that we had to wear hairnets. We went to Rose’s and picked up hairnets, but Cline said we didn’t have to. We could have just gone and gotten a haircut.”

Clark also recalls women who made a name for themselves as employees at the local utility company over the years -- Ruth Henderson and Katherine Vernon (Worley).

“Ruth was like a mama. She made sure you stayed out of the newspaper and paid your taxes,” said Clark.

The Vepconian referred to the company as the type of company where people came, and they stayed. 

“We were one big happy family,” said Clark. 

“John Burgess, Mary Kent, Waylon, Roy and Dodson Keesee, all had between 30 to 35 years at the company, and Raymond and Sam Compton, Charlie and Ben Franklin had 40 plus years between them,” he said of former employees.

During earlier times with the company, employees enjoyed parties, picnics, dances and always found a way to support the community. 

“There was always a budget for parties,” said Clark.

“The company was big on community support. I think they helped the Lions, bloodmobile, ball fields, legions, fire departments, and some helped different churches,” he added.

In 1970 when Clark began working at the utility company then known as Vepco, he was making $2.86 an hour as a lineman.

When he retired in June 2009, he made $30 an hour.

During his time with the company, Clark recalled two strikes, one in 1962 and the other in 2006. Both were related to benefits and the company trying to do away with retirement benefits, he said.

“They were peaceful strikes. It was a good paying company, and the combination of the union and company made for it to be a safe company and a leading industry for benefits,” said Clark.

“The company taught me how to save, to be a good community citizen, and we were all well blessed with good retirement packages. It was one of the leading companies in this area with benefits,” he added.

Many people who once worked with the company went on to pursue their career opportunities. 

“Many local people…South Boston was just a stepping stone for a lot of people,” said Clark.

Included on that list was John Smatlack who went on to become vice president of Dominion Power. Smatlack is scheduled to speak at the reunion on April 11.

“We worked hard, played hard and partied hard. It was a great place to work,” Clark said.

The reunion will be held Wednesday, April 11, at 10:30 a.m. until. 

Clark said currently over 100 people have said they will attend.