“It’s been a home to me,” he said in a meeting room at the electric company’s Boones Creek headquarters. “I started out at 85 cents an hour. We were just starting our family, and I was tickled to death to have insurance.”
Nearly 57 years later, the couple’s children are grown with kids of their own, but Davis is still providing for his second family at the Johnson City Power Board.
Starting as an engineering assistant and working up over the decades to be the underground distribution supervisor, now, at 78 years old, he’s the longest-serving active employee in the entire seven-state Tennessee Valley Authority system.
After graduating from high school in 1954, Davis, like many young people through the ages, wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself.
He headed to the local post office to apply for a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and, after a background check, was hired as a fingerprinting clerk in Washington, D.C.
There he would log fingerprints sent from law enforcement agencies all over the United States, and it was there, among the loops and swirls, that he met the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with.
Jerry and Phyllis wed in the nation’s capital, but returned to Johnson City, because D.C. “wasn’t the kind of place where we wanted to start a family.”
Soon after returning, Davis was hired at the electric company, a job with health insurance and a pension plan, perfect for a young family.
When he started in the late 50s, Johnson City was in the process of moving its overhead utilities underground, burying the wires and transformers and making the area safer and more aesthetically pleasing in the process.
From there, Davis began learning the careful calculations and repair techniques needed for installing high-voltage underground lines.
Mark Eades, formerly head engineer for the Power Board but now its chief operations officer, said Davis’ wealth of knowledge gained through years of hands-on experience and technical classes he’s taken during his tenure have been priceless to the utility provider.
“That’s where Jerry has always excelled,” Eades said, as Davis cracked wise nearby. “He’s always been one of the best cable splicers and cable terminators that we’ve ever had. There’s a skill to it; it’s a whole different world when you’re working with high voltage.”
From the project in downtown Johnson City, when virtually none of the Power Board’s system was underground, the use of buried cables grew, mostly in new subdivisions, so that now 10 percent of the lines are hidden.
In his 57 years, Davis has been involved with the installation of 250 miles of underground high-voltage lines and terminals.
“I can take my grandboys by and say, ‘Papaw did that, Papaw put that in,’ ” he said. “Yeah, it does make you feel good, because that’s progress.”
During his tenure, Davis said the job has rarely been easy, but it’s usually been a labor of love.
In 1993, when all hands were on deck repairing lines during a massive snowstorm, linemen worked for nearly a week straight to return electricity to thousands of customers.
While one worker drove the crew to the next outage, the men would sleep in the truck on the way and then get right back to work when they arrived — a practice that is no longer allowed, Eades was quick to point out.
Once, during an especially hectic period for installing underground lines, Davis said his crew worked for 125 consecutive days, with several round-the-clock shifts and no day shorter than 10 hours.
“We were in the process of going through a pipe system, and we didn’t have a backhoe, so we had to dig it out by hand,” he said. “You get kind of worn down and tired doing that after a while.”
Even during the long hours and the harsh conditions, Phyllis said she knew the work Davis was doing was providing for their family, so she stood by and supported him when he did eventually make it home.
“I’m very proud,” she said of the record her husband holds. “I try to keep him well, so he can go to work, because I know that’s his second love. I think he’s been a wonderful example for all three of our children, and the Power Board’s been an excellent employer for us.”
One other employee among the TVA and its 155 distributors, since retired, worked for 59.5 years.
Davis said he’s eyeing that record, and may put on a few extra years to make sure it’s not broken anytime soon.
“Some people say to me, ‘I don’t understand why you’re staying,’ ” he said. “I enjoy what I do. Each case you go on is different.”
Eades said Davis is welcome to stay as long as he likes.
“The things he can teach the guys who are newer to the underground crew, they’re things he’s had to learn through experience, but now he can give others that knowledge without them having to figure it out on their own,” Eades said.
“Sometimes — just sometimes,” Eades said with a laugh, “I wish we had three or four more Jerrys.”
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