While still in his teens, Mike Willhoite applied for a job at the Grand River Dam Authority. He said he called, and called, and called again. After all those calls failed, he decided he would try just one last time before enrolling in college. That “one last” phone call led to a 30-year career in public power.
“I had always wanted to work for GRDA,” said Willhoite, a Salina High School graduate. “I was trying to hold on, but needed to get enrolled if I was going to go to school, I thought it I would try one more time.”
He began his career with the GRDA Vegetation Management (Brush) Crew; the crew responsible for mowing, trimming and maintaining GRDA rights-of-way. During that time, he grew familiar with GRDA’s system and began attending an electronics class as night. It wasn’t long before he got an opportunity to put his newly acquired skills to use when he transferred to the GRDA Metering Department and then on to the Relay Department where he spent a total of 14 years. In 2002 he transferred to System Operations, achieving the status of Senior System Operator in 2006.
“System Operations had always been my goal ever since I moved to metering,” he said. Spending the last 12 years of his career with the Authority in Operations has given Willhoite more than one occasion to think quickly on his feet and be a part of putting the puzzle back together, restoring power to customers.
“It is exciting,” he said. “When the system has a problem, a town having an outage, lines failing, you have to be prepared every minute for when something happens. It’s like an adrenaline rush.”
According to Willhoite, the big ice storm in 2007 kept the adrenaline flowing for nearly two weeks.
Though he may appreciate excitement at work, he prefers to spend his down time in a much quieter way. Like Thoreau who went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, Willhoite welcomes any opportunity to spend time in the Rocky Mountains, on foot or on bike.
“It’s so big there, so natural. You can still find those pristine places where there is no one there but you. It’s quiet and peaceful,” he said.
Growing up on his family’s farm, Willhoite fell in love with the freedom that his first bicycle brought him, and quickly set his sights on something bigger and faster. He achieved his dream just a few years later after hauling hay all summer; he bought his first motorcycle when he was 13 years old. He was hooked. Soon, he was even riding competitively in area motor cross events; something he did until just a few years ago. His family support and share his passion for bikes. Lyn, his wife of 28 years and daughter Kathryn support him, and son Michael shares with him too. The pair has competed together in mountain bike races all over Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Now riding his 24th motorcycle, a Sportster Harley Davidson, and his Yeti mountain bike that he built from an American made frame, Willhoite still loves the freedom two wheels bring. Both afford him the opportunity to seek out those quiet, still places.
It’s no wonder his bikes will figure prominently in his retirement. He plans on, once he has slept a full week, going back to the Maroon Bells to finish a hike he and Lyn started four years ago. The Maroon Bells, two peaks in the Elk Mountains near Aspen, Colorado, are separated by about a third of a mile and are reputed to be among the most photographed places in Colorado.
“We hiked in on the south side and then it started snowing. By the time we made it to Frigid Air Pass it was snowing so hard we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us. We want to go back and hike it from one end to the other,” he said.
The couple also plans on beefing up their gear for their return trip. Besides their water filter and cook stove, there will be quite a lot of dried food, of which he remains amazed by both the range and taste.
“Pour out powder, heat it up and magic- you have macaroni and cheese,” he said with a quiet laugh. “You can really carry a lot of dried food without much weight.”
Considering his love of the mountains, it’s no surprise that Willhoite digs ancient history. When he’s not in the mountains, chances are he will be reading about them and the people who inhabited them. Willhoite also reads a lot shop manuals in order to maintain his bikes.
Though he will miss the camaraderie with GRDA coworkers, he is looking forward to retirement. Reflecting on his career in public power, Willhoite has witnessed quite a few changes over the past 30 years. He believes public power benefits Oklahoma and its residents.
“There is no doubt that public power is good for the area, for the state. Because we provide power at a low cost, towns are able to sell it to their customers and fund their fire departments, and police departments. We are really good for the state.”