Politics or government had always been the path to the office of administrator of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA)—until 1978, when President Jimmy Carter appointed electric cooperative veteran and public power executive Bob Feragen to succeed Dave Hamil.
Hamil had been speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives before his first appointment; he served twice, from 1956-1961 and 1969-1978. Claude Wickard (1945-1953) was secretary of Agriculture for five years, and then wound down his public service career a few doors down the hall at REA. Other REA administrators had served on state and federal commissions.
Feragen began his co-op career in the summer of 1961, when East River Electric Power Cooperative in Madison, S.D., hired him to write a film script about power supply in the Missouri River Basin. At the end of the summer, he stayed on as information director.
In 1963, he moved to Bismarck, N.D., to work for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a brand new generation and transmission system that would grow rapidly into a regional giant. Seven years later, he moved to Massachusetts to head the Northeast Public Power Association and then, in 1975, the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company.
He was a rising star in public power circles, and in July 1978, Hamil brought him to Washington to be his deputy. Three months later, Carter appointed him to succeed the Coloradan.
Tall and stooped with a long face and a languid voice, Feragen had a professorial demeanor. In fact, he’d taught literature at Texas A&M and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh for eight years in the 1950s.
He was a writer at heart, producing poems, stories, essays, and a novel over the years. He kept at it long after he retired in 1991 from his post-REA career at East River Electric, first as manager of administrative services and then general manager. In 2013, when he was 88, he self-published July’s Christmas Doll, a collection of seven Christmas stories fashioned from his memories of growing up in the Dakotas during the Great Depression.
Feragen’s poem “A Celebration of Success” closes NRECA’s coffee-table book The Next Greatest Thing. Over 10 long, lyrical stanzas, he celebrates the people living on “Prairie soil, or Allegheny hills, Bayou swamp, or Rocky Mountain passes.”
By trade and temperament, Feragen was drawn to the fifth cooperative principle, “education, training, and information.” During his time in Washington, that outlook was a magnet for people at NRECA and among the statewides, G&Ts, and local co-ops involved in communications work. In 1980, when NRECA held its first national communicators conference, Administrator Feragen was a keynote speaker.
In 1985, the year REA celebrated its 50th anniversary, he was asked by NRECA to write the first of four “Foundations of Rural Electrification” essays for RE Magazine. His topic was the importance of electric co-op communication programs, but he stretched that theme to discuss Jeffersonian-style participatory democracy and the “covenant” co-ops had with Congress: low-cost financing through REA in exchange for delivering reliable electric service on an area-coverage basis.
Jefferson saw “information [as] the premier obligation of democracy,” Feragen wrote, and democratically controlled “rural electric systems have come to realize that information programs which reach out to the consumer-owner are not budgetary luxuries but the essence of their rural community function.”
Co-ops promote “democratic life in the community [which] rests squarely upon the authority of the membership,” he continued. “It must be inclusive, rather than exclusive; associative rather than elite. The renewal of a rural cooperative will rest upon a communications ‘logic’ that focuses upon people, not upon the institution.”