Honoring a Lineman’s Legacy

Callen Cheesman is remembered on shirts his fellow linemen wore at international rodeo

Members of the Owen Electric team honor lineman Callen Cheesman, who died in a traffic accident. (Photo By: Dennis Gainer/NRECA)
Members of the Owen Electric team honor lineman Callen Cheesman, who died in a traffic accident. (Photo By: Dennis Gainer/NRECA)

BONNER SPRINGS, Kan.—Callen Cheesman would have gotten a kick out of rooting for his coworkers from Owen Electric Cooperative at a prestigious lineman’s competition. But his spirit was on display for all to see.

As they participated in the recent International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo, six linemen from Owen Electric wore black and green shirts honoring the memory of Cheesman, who died in a work-related truck accident in April.

“Every year, our linemen decide what shirt they want to take to the rodeo. This year, they designed one for Callen,” said Mark Stallons, president and CEO of the Owenton, Kentucky-based co-op. “It was a great thing to do.”

In death, as in life, the bond between linemen is unbreakable.

“He never did the rodeo, but he supported it and I think he’d be proud,” said Tony Bach, part of a team with James Juett and Charlie Colligan that participated in their fourth international rodeo. “We’ve all been on his crew at some point.”

On April 4, Cheesman was driving a utility truck on Interstate 71/75 near Florence, Kentucky, when he collided with a box truck that was switching lanes in response to apparent mechanical issues. His crew members, trailing him in another vehicle, saw the accident. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

“It hit the guys really hard,” Stallons said. “He was a crew leader, a great lineman, a good employee and a fantastic guy to have around.”

Born May 21, 1966, Cheesman made a name as a sharp-shooting basketball player at Walton-Verona High School in Walton, Kentucky, and later at Berea College.

He coached boys’ and girls’ basketball for years and had been an institution at Owen Electric for more than two decades. Cheesman was a crew leader at the co-op, which serves more than 61,000 meters in nine counties located in northern Kentucky, south of Cincinnati.

He is survived by wife Kimberly and two children.

“He was very proud of his family, a very big family man, and if you were in his crew, he had your back no matter what,” Juett said.

His funeral was a tribute to a lineman from linemen, who carried his casket and built a power pole and crossarm that resembled a cross. Slung over the crossarm were his belt, spikes, and other gear.

That design became the inspiration for the rodeo shirts, first unveiled at a statewide event and then at the international rodeo, held Oct. 14 in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

“We actually made that for his funeral, and we took a picture of it and sent it to the shirt company and they came up with the drawing,” Bach said. A second team of Cody Beckham, John Lilly and Bobby VonBokern also wore the shirts as they were climbing poles and splicing wires at the competition.

The shirts were unveiled at the Kentucky Lineman’s Rodeo in late September with Kimberly Cheesman looking on.

“Callen was bigger than life, just a big strong guy, always asking questions,” Stallons said. “If you came in a meeting you always knew he was there, vocally as well as physically. He was a good lineman; he loved to train young linemen and he loved to be a mentor.”

Steven Johnson is a contributor to NRECA publications.