Twenty years ago, in 1984, a very small group of individuals including Tom White, the President of TWSCO, a linework materials vendor, Dale Warman, a supervisor for Kansas City Power and Light, and Charlie Young, a supervisor for Southwest Line Construction organized the first ever National Lineman’s rodeo. The primary purposes of the event then as now was to help maintain a focus on safety and safe work practices, to provide a forum for the public to better understand and recognize the technical craft skills the linemen have, and to provide an opportunity for the professionals craftspeople in the linework trade to receive recognition for their skills. One other purpose has always been for the participants to have fun while sharing work knowledge with others in their trade from different companies and different parts of the country.
The first event was held in Manhattan, Kansas at the Manhattan Vocational Technical School and had twelve journeyman teams competing. It grew a little the next year in terms of number of participants and by the third year had gotten too large for the training grounds at Manhattan. Starting in 1986 and for the next 5 years the rodeo was held at the Sub One Training Grounds of KCPL. During this period in the Rodeo’s history a number of changes occurred. The most notable one was the overall size and scope of the rodeo grew from the initial 36 competitors the first year to 235 competitors at the 7th annual rodeo. This nearly 600% increase in participation in it’s first 7 years confirmed to the organizers and the vendor sponsors that such an event was indeed needed and wanted by both the linemen and the general public. As the number of participants increased so did the size of audience that came to watch the competition. Other changes of note that occurred during this period in the rodeo history included the increase in the number of companies represented from four in 1984 to over 50 in 1990. Also, the number and type of events that were included in the competition increased during that period. Another significant change was the addition of 20 apprentice competitors at the 4th annual event in 1987. The number of competing lineman and apprentices has continued to increase every year to date with 783 journeymen and 261 apprentices representing 115 different companies from nearly every state and several foreign countries competing in last year’s 19th annual rodeo. The opening of the Rodeo to international competition occurred at the 10th annual event in 1993. That year saw the first participation from teams outside the US including teams from Canada and England. Since that time, competitors have entered from other countries as well including the Philippines, Jamaica, and Ireland. Companies from still other countries like Germany, France, Russia, and South Africa have sent teams or representatives to investigate their possible future participation as well.
This broadening of the competition, along with the increasing number of participants, made the scoring of the rodeo more and more complex. In 1987, at the 5th Rodeo, a computer based scoring program was written by the Testing Coordinator from KCPL specifically for Rodeo scoring and used for the first time. Compared to the sophisticated scoring program currently being used to help manage the huge scoring task, that program was simple but computers really helped to improve reliability and timeliness and continued upgrades to that technology are expected to improve that function further. Rather than the dozen or more trained, qualified volunteers that now handle the scoring function, there were only two people responsible for all scoring for the first 8-9 years.
Speaking of volunteers, the Rodeo’s dependence on the good will and hard work of its volunteers has not changed throughout its history. There would not be a Rodeo without the huge force of volunteers that work primarily the day before and the day of the Rodeo. These people, for the most part, have volunteered year after year in the same jobs and put in countless hours in all kinds of weather to make it all really happen. The several hundred volunteers who handle everything from helping move team’s tools and equipment to directing traffic to scoring to helping with registration to operating equipment and a hundred other significant functions are the key to the success of the rodeo and in a large measure responsible for the seemingly seamless experience our out of town contestants and their guests have at the Rodeo. Controlling traffic and getting hundreds and hundreds of cars parked within a very narrow time frame usually in the dark or registering nearly 1000 individual competitors in just a few hours is just something they are used to doing. They are so good at it is easy to take what they do for granted.
There are two groups of key volunteers as well that provide for the Rodeo what the Association could never afford to pay for. One key group is the judges. These are the experienced linemen and line supervisors who actually perform the role of judging the events. They put in a very long Rodeo day for certain, but in addition to their actual judging time, they voluntarily attend meetings during the week ahead of the Rodeo. In these meetings every effort is made to help each judge understand exactly what their role is and what they should be expecting of each participant for the specific event they are judging. This setting of the expectations with each judge along with the judging structure of judges, master judges, and chief judges who each have years of judging experience are all intended to provide reliable and consistent judging for the participants.
The second, smaller key group of Rodeo volunteers are the administrative volunteers. These people provide the leadership for what is in fact, a very large organization. The volunteer administrators include those people on the Advisory Committee who meet here in Kansas City 4 times a year in addition to Rodeo week and represent participating companies and Local Unions from every region of the country. Their primary functions includes the selection of Rodeo events, and advising the Rodeo Association Board of Directors on all the operational issues related to hosting the competition. Nearly everyone of these dedicated volunteers also work another volunteer job or two during the week of and the day of the Rodeo as well. Many are Master or Chief judges. The other volunteer administrative group is the International Lineman’s Rodeo Board of Directors. This group puts in countless hours all through the year between rodeos and each member is responsible for one or more of the major activities related to the Rodeo. Activities like registration, scoring, awards banquet, preparing the competition field, the trade night and BBQ, contracting with the hotels, arranging the local transportation, overall coordination of the event, handling the Rodeo Association finances, and countless other critical leadership tasks that make the ILRA an on-going and growing, functional registered not-for-profit organization are all overseen by this small group.
The Rodeo was not always run as a not-for-profit organization. In it’s earlier days for the first 10 years or so, the Rodeo was the property of TWSCO who had been instrumental in getting it started. Around 1993, the Rodeo had gotten sufficiently large that it could not be effectively managed or funded for further growth and improvement without outside help. The then Rodeo Board of Directors formed the National Rodeo Association which provided the opportunities for companies involved with linework to purchase annual association sponsorships at different levels which gave them the ability to enter their teams at a discounted rate depending on their level of sponsorship and started what later became the Advisory Board. This structure again changed in 1998 when TWSCO surrendered the rights to the National Rodeo to the expanded, newly elected International Lineman’s Rodeo Association Board. That same year the ILRA entered in an alliance with Intertec Cooperation, the publisher of T&D magazine, to set up a vendor exposition and help handle the registration and other non-competition, rodeo related activities. The next year the Board filed for and was granted not-for-profit corporation status in the State of Missouri.
Another group which volunteered countless hours in the early days as well as materials and tools for the competition were the vendor representatives. Now they continue to support the ILRA every year with both in-kind donations and reduced cost materials as well as providing another revenue source for the Rodeo through their participation in the Vendor Exposition. Literally hundreds of vendors have helped the Rodeo over the years and contributed both in terms of goods and the use of their very talented and hard working people. Many continue to do so today.
The International Lineman’s Rodeo was built and continues now to operate on this volunteer labor because it works and works well. Another area of “volunteerism” that was less effective historically was the ILRA’s dependence on one organization or another “volunteering” to provide the physical space to hold the event. Given the current level of participation in the rodeo, the rodeo grounds require a large number of acres to house the participant tents, scoring area, testing area, and over 160 event poles plus dozens of dead end poles and other structures. In addition, the event requires use of a very large parking area for volunteers, participants and spectators. As mentioned earlier, the Rodeo quickly outgrew the space at Manhattan and then by 1991 had outgrown the space available at the KCPL Training Center. In 1991 the 8th annual rodeo was asked to be held in St. Louis to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the IBEW which was being celebrated there that year. When the Rodeo returned to Kansas City in 1992 the Association worked with the City of Kansas City Missouri to acquire the temporary use of a large enough vacant space of land in a central location on which to hold it. The Association was given use of some vacant acreage near the Oceans of Fun and Worlds of Fun amusement parks. The Rodeo stayed there for the 9th, 10th, and 11th events. As with all the previous locations, each year the rodeo grounds were constructed during the summer and had to be torn completely down soon after the event and the whole process repeated each year. The Rodeo then moved to a vacant lot in the old Kansas City Stockyards district and was rebuilt there for the 12th annual rodeo in 1995. The lot was sold that same year and Kansas City provided use of some vacant ground a few blocks over on Liberty, again in the West Bottoms. That ground required considerable rehabilitation including the brush cutting, trash removal, addition of drainage, grading, tree trimming, and graveling prior to being able to build the 13th annual rodeo event there. The Rodeo stayed there for 14th and 15th annual events and then the City once again sold that property. In 1999, the Board of Directors contracted with National Agricultural Hall of Fame, in Bonner Springs, Kansas for a 10 year lease for some open ground behind the Ag Hall and, starting with the 16th annual Rodeo, have been there since. Finally, the added expense of completely tearing down the competition ground each year and starting construction from scratch the next year could be avoided. The Association hopes this will become the permanent home of the Event given its pastoral setting, ample parking, proximity to other local area attractions, and excellent cooperation between the ILRA and the Ag Hall.