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Jeff Johnston always wanted to work at Sam Houston Electric Cooperative after finishing lineworker school. Unfortunately for him, the Co-op was not hiring any line technicians when he graduated. So instead he worked at neighboring Jasper-Newton Electric Cooperative for six years before being hired to work in Sam Houston EC’s Woodville branch office 14 years ago.
“I could have still lived here and worked there, but I wanted to be part of Sam Houston EC,” said Johnston, a line technician still working out of the Woodville office. “This is where I wanted to work from day one.”
He found out Sam Houston EC was hiring about the same time his wife’s mother fell ill.
“I applied, got over here and within a couple of months her mom passed away,” Johnston said. “It was a godsend really. He didn’t open the door for me six years before that, but He opened it when it needed to be open.”
After working at Sam Houston EC for nearly 15 years, Johnston is proud to work for the community where he also lives and volunteers. He spends most workdays connecting power for new consumer-members with his crew. He’s been called upon to install lightning arresters across the creek from where he and his friends swam as children, and to install new fiberglass brackets to increase the reliability of the Co-op’s system.
“There really isn’t a greater feeling than to leave work knowing that you helped somebody that day, whether it is someone you know or not,” he said. “I think it definitely makes you work a little harder. People look forward to getting their lights turned on. In new construction, we leave there knowing it is done. Nine times out of 10, the reward is there.”
Johnston serves the Woodville community in other ways, too. He and his wife, Tracy, are very active in the community and invested in providing the best possible childhood for their daughter, Adelyn.
“Jeff and I were raised by wonderful parents. They were involved in the community as well,” Tracy said. “It is our duty to do that for Adelyn. I know with his job and his obligations with his job that it does get hard when you have meetings every night. We remind ourselves that it isn’t for us—it is for the youth and to make sure Adelyn has a childhood like we had.”
The Johnstons are heavily involved in Adelyn’s extracurricular activities. Tracy has helped with her basketball team, and Jeff assists with running the local softball league and main-taining the field so the girls can play.
“If we didn’t have the same group of people step up every year, then the area would be grown up with pine trees and there wouldn’t be a Tyler County softball field,” Johnston said. “She has more years to play there, so we definitely want to keep it up.”
Tracy said her husband can fix almost anything (except maybe plumbing), so keeping the softball fields in good condition and volunteering at the Tyler County Fair are a natural fit for him. He also volunteers in community events that require him to step out of his comfort zone.
Through a breast cancer awareness fundraiser, Johnston helped raise $13,000 so that a woman with a terminal diagnosis could afford experimental treatments. The hope was that the treatments would extend her life so she could spend more time with her young child.
“The lady needed some help, and I would love for someone to step up and do it for me if I was in that situation,” Johnston said. “That little bit may have given her two more months of life to enjoy her newborn. It was just something that needed to be done. I was way out of my comfort zone, but I just put everything aside and rocked it.”
Leann Monk, a friend of Johnston’s and the Tyler County treasurer, convinced Johnston to enter Dancing With the Tyler County Stars as another way to give back to the community. The annual fundraiser supports youths participating in events at the Tyler County Fair.
Thankfully for Johnston, who says he dances like a stick, he was partnered with a dance teacher in town. He tried to keep up and follow his partner’s lead as much as possible, and it paid off. They took first place.
“I dressed up like Bret Michaels, and they did the makeup, but that makeup wasn’t something I could just go home and wash off,” Johnston said. “It had to wear off over a few days. It was a blast to help out the community.”
Johnston considers himself lucky to be able to live and work on the same land he grew up on. Though his parents recently died, he still looks after his aunts just down the road from his home, and his job as a line technician affords him the opportunity to help them from time to time.
“There are so many great things [about] working at the Co-op, but there is nothing better than working in the community you grew up in, to be able to come home to the house where I was raised 40-something years ago,” he said. “Adelyn is the seventh generation to live on this land. There are some old poles that are still standing with transformers on them. They are only about as wide as a coffee cup, and I would give anything to know the history of that pole.”
Sam Houston EC is allowing its line technicians to take trucks home because of new social distancing policies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new policy allowed Johnston to help his family and other members a few months after the pandemic hit East Texas.
“I got a call from one of my aunts saying something was sparking and arcing, and the line is down on the road,” he said. “A tree had fallen on the line and tore it down across the highway. It was a mess and not safe. We got the county to come out there to stop traffic, but we got it back up. It was 300 yards from the house, and we were able to get there and fix it quickly.”
Johnston takes great pride in carrying on his family name and the good name of Sam Houston EC. It is easy for him to work hard and the right way when he is constantly reminded of his work as he drives through the area.
“When we go from Lufkin to Sour Lake, you never know where we are going to be,” Johnston said. “When the family is driving around, I will say, ‘I built that job.’ There is some pride doing that.”