It almost didn’t happen for Keith Stapleton. He had joined Sam Houston Electric Cooperative out of college in 1983 as a general office helper. A week into his new job, a hurricane struck and the whole endeavor and response seemed a bit chaotic. “I don’t think I’m going to stay with this,” he thought.

Forty years later, Stapleton looks back with a chuckle. He stuck it out at the Livingston, Texas-based co-op, from working in a leaky office and soldering computers to testifying before the state legislature and becoming one of the most respected communicators in the electric cooperative network.

On May 7, Stapleton received the Autry Leadership Award for Always On Communication at NRECA’s Connect Conference in Baltimore. The lifetime achievement recognition is named for the only other recipient, co-op legend Jimmy Autry of Flint Energies in Warner Robins, Georgia.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” said Stapleton, who served on the Council of Rural Electric Communicators when it created the award in 2017. “I thought, ‘This award will be presented one time. There’s only one Jimmy Autry.’ So it’s a huge honor.”

It also is well-deserved, his friends and colleagues said, because of Stapleton’s innate ability to connect with everyone from members to regulators while keeping SHEC on the cutting edge of technology.

“It’s his authenticity,” said Rachel Hawkins, who worked with Stapleton for nine years at Sam Houston Electric and followed him as chief communications officer. “He has a great feel for people. He would find a way to work with them in a positive fashion even if they disagreed on something or didn’t think the same way.”

While Stapleton retired in December 2022, he still is on call with Sam Houston Electric and other electric co-ops in Texas when they need to tap his reservoir of communications knowledge.

At the start, though, communications was not even in the lexicon of Sam Houston Electric, which serves 68,000 members in east Texas. A new computer—a first for the co-op—arrived a few months after Stapleton started.

He unboxed it and soldered the connections, eventually connected some servers and “sort of stumbled” into the roles of data processing manager and IT manager for 16 years. But Stapleton, who also added member services duties, had a passion for communications. A corporate change in 2003 placed him as chief communications officer with a wide portfolio, and he remained in that position for 20 years.

“That was the first time any title at Sam Houston had the word communications in it,” he laughed.

Stapleton worked through a litany of challenges, including storm activity, rate restructuring, billing issues, adverse publicity and the growing importance and accompanying danger of social media.

“He personalized messages,” Hawkins said. “He would really make everyone feel heard and then, if necessary, get them a response that felt truly personalized. He is very intuitive and very thoughtful.”

At Sam Houston Electric, Stapleton is particularly proud of his role in a 2018 strategic plan that emphasized reaching out to members at a time when technologies such as advanced metering infrastructure or automated payments added convenience but reduced opportunities to meet members face to face. The result: record satisfaction scores.

“It’s more than just hooking up their power, getting a bill to them and taking their payment,” he said. “Our member services personnel are going into the field, out of the office, usually with a communications person. In a sense, everyone is a communicator now and we can definitely see the results.

Stapleton has been a frequent presenter on state and national panels, served on the Touchstone Energy ® Cooperative Advisory Board and received the inaugural LaBerge Award in 2019 for excellence in strategic communications. Anne Harvey of Pioneer Utility Resources recalled the first time she encountered Stapleton when she was at Touchstone Energy.

“I was truly honored when Keith reached out for a discussion on Touchstone Energy’s Strategy Execution System. He had reviewed it but wanted to learn firsthand how it was being adopted with our board of directors and employees as he wanted to elevate an already successful Sam Houston EC strategic plan,” she said. “We chatted multiple times about various facets of the program, and each time I hung up the phone, I was giddy about his ideas and concepts.”

Stapleton started a family tradition as his son, Justin, is vice president of government relations at MidSouth Electric Cooperative in Montgomery, Texas. His daughter, Megan, is a musical artist and professor of voice at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, not far from where Autry, the award namesake and a good friend, now lives.

“Keith is true co-op family,” Autry said. “We have been able to talk and get together even after we both have retired. Family never ends.”

Steven Johnson is a contributing writer for NRECA.