On a rainy night in a remote village in Guatemala, a girl of 10 or 11 approached Mel Coleman. Earlier that evening, Coleman and some other American visitors had taken part in a “lighting ceremony” to mark the extension of electricity to the mountain hamlet. But the girl’s’ village, a few miles away, still lacked this basic necessity, and she implored Coleman and his colleagues to do something about it.
Exactly how, he wasn’t sure. The conversation was one Coleman never expected to have when he went to work for the Salem-based North Arkansas Electric Cooperative nearly three decades ago. As the nonprofit cooperative’s chief executive officer, his main job is ensuring that about 30,000 members in seven counties have reliable electrical service.
But Coleman’s accession to leadership roles in the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association opened his mind to what cooperatives could accomplish. The association represents 900 cooperatives in 47 states. Over his recent two-year term as its board president, he made the organization’s overseas electrification program, now active in 26 countries, even more of a priority.
Coleman, of Salem, also advocated for cooperatives across the United States to bring broadband internet access to members, and made the north Arkansas cooperative a leader in that regard.
“For us, it’s not just about electricity,” he says. “Our mission 75 years ago and our mission today is to improve the quality of life for all of our members.”
By 1940, co-ops were serving a million members across the nation. Arkansas’ first co-op, headquartered in Jacksonville, energized its first line in 1937. But challenges persisted. Investor-owned utilities fought the growth of their nonprofit counterparts, Coleman says, arguing, among other things, that copper wire being used to build the rural power system would be better used in fighting World War II.
So the rural cooperatives decided to organize, forming the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association in 1942. The next year, the association hired its first chief executive – former U.S . Rep. Clyde T. Ellis (D-Ark.), who led the organization from 1943-1967 and became known as “Mr. Rural Electrification” for his ability to get things done in Washington.
“He was the one who, in my opinion, built the NRECA,” Coleman says. “It’s kind of special to me to be the first president of er, Coleman loves talking about the history of nonprofit, member-owned electric cooperatives and what they’ve meant to rural America. It’s a story with a decidedly Arkansas twist. In the early 1920s, Coleman says, only 3 percent of American farms had electricity. The situation wasn’t much better in 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed the Rural Electrification Act through Congress. The act provided federal loans for the installation of electrical systems, funneled through hundreds of cooperatives that still exist.
“Nobody wanted to serve rural America,” Coleman says. “It didn’t fit the business model. They couldn’t get the rate of return they wanted.”
The result was that rural America “had a different quality of life than there was in the city. Women had back-breaking chores without electricity to help them. It was just a hard, very difficult life that rural America had prior to the estabthe NRECA from Arkansas, and also to have the connection to the NRECA that Clyde Ellis had.”
THE NEXT BIG THING
Coleman, 63, grew up in Pocahontas cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and hanging around radio stations. He studied broadcast journalism at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, and worked there a year before moving to Salem in 1977.
In Salem, he and a couple of colleagues built a station, KSARFM, 92.3, from the ground up. “The thing about small-market radio is you do everything,” he says. “I was general manager, I had an on-air shift, I had a sales portfolio. You do it all in small-market radio, and you love it all. It was a great career, albeit a short one, that I really loved.”
A decade later, with his family growing, Coleman took a job as vice president of consumer lending at a local bank. He then jumped at another opening, with the electric cooperative. “Having radio in the background, I think that greatly enhanced my career in the co-op,” he says. “I may not have known all of them, but they knew me.”
The North Arkansas Electric Cooperative covers most of Fulton, Sharp, Izard and Baxter counties, with additional members in Lawrence, Marion and Stone counties. The cooperative operates about 4,500 miles of power line, 27 substation sites and full-service offices in Ash Flat and Mountain Home, in addition to Salem. It’s the fifth largest of the state’s 17 electric cooperatives and part owner in and a customer of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., which operates a dozen power plants around the state.
Dennis Wiles of Horseshoe Bend in Izard County, a member of the North Arkansas co-op’s board, describes Coleman as an effective leader. “He rea lly knows the industry, he’s a good communicator, and I think he’s done an exceptional job on the national cooperative board,” Wiles says.
Members are excited about the prospect of gaining broadband internet service, which is desperately needed, Wiles says. “That’s a major, major deal for us in such a rural area. I think it’s going to be as big a deal over the next 75 years as electricity was in the last 75 years,” he says.
Coleman cautions that the network “is very costly, and it’s going to take us some time to do it,” probably four to five years, but the early reaction from members has been positive.
His executive assistant, Kyla Hawkins, says she has seen him put in long hours, like during the 2009 ice storm that knocked out electricity to three-fourths of the co-op’s customers, some for nearly three weeks.
Before that, the most costly damage from a single storm was in the $300,000 range, Coleman recalls. “The ice storm of 2009 was a $40 million ic e storm. At one time, on day number two or three, we had every meter out. We lost around 5,000 poles. It was one of the most trying times we’ve had.”
Although there may be a few dissenters, most co-op members support the association’s work overseas for one simple reason, Wiles says. “A lot of our members can remember when they didn’t have power, believe it or not. They can relate to poor economic conditions in the countries we go to.”
‘BRIGHT AND SHINING MOMENT’
Coleman was elected to represent Arkansas’ co-ops in the association in 2004. He served on several committees within the organization before working his way up to secretary-treasurer, vice president and eventually president.
The National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association, in addition to representing co-ops in the nation’s capital, runs employee benefit plans for member co-ops, provides training and technical research and a host of other services. Its staff of about 700 is headed by a CEO who, for virtually all of the organization’s history, has been a former member of Congress.
The president’s role requires a lot of travel, presiding over board meetings and public speaking.
“Mel is a guy who’s got communication in his background,” says Phil Carson, a co-op CEO from southern Illinois who followed Coleman as the national organization’s president. “He’s very smooth on stage and always well prepared.”
Carson says Coleman’s biggest challenge as president came about six months into his tenure, when the organization’s then-new CEO, Jo Ann Emerson, developed a brain aneurysm while on vacation in Italy and could not continue in her role. “There was a void there and Mel stepped in, kept the ship moving forward and gave us stability,” Carson says. “That might have been his most bright and shining moment.”
“That’s about as big a crisis as you can experience,” Coleman agrees. “We’re talking about a $14 billion organization, 700 employees wh o lost their leader.”
Coleman says Emerson, a good friend and former congressman from southeast Missouri, “was really hitting her stride” before her medical crisis. “We were so saddened by her loss and debilitating illness,” Coleman says. “At the same time, we had a job to do. It did take leadership, and it did take cooperation with the entire board.”
In June 2016, the association hired Jim Matheson, a former Utah congressman, as CEO. “Today, I guess you could say we’re back to normal,” Colemansays.
There’s sound reasoning for employing former congressmen as CEOs, Carson says.
“We try to stay connected, obviously,” he says. “There’s an old saying in politics: ‘You’re either at the table or on the menu.'”
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Coleman and the association have vigorously opposed the federal Clean Power Plan, an initiative of former President Barack Obama’s that requires coal-burning power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Coleman say s his group supports renewable energy and takes no position on the climate change debate, but believes complying with the Clean Power Plan as written would be disastrous for electric cooperatives. The National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association is among parties challenging the Clean Power Plan in court.
“We do serve the poorest counties in the United States,” he says.
President Donald Trump has the Clean Power Plan on the chopping block. At press time, Trump had yet to issue an executive order that would dismantle it.
Coleman says the political stalemate in Washington in recent years made it difficult for organizations like his to get things done. He’s proud that the Electrify Africa Act was approved by Congress last year. The act, backed by the association, is designed to help supply electricity to millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
He was also part of a group that met with Obama to suggest how the federal government could have better res ponded to Hurricane Sandy. Linemen from the north Arkansas cooperative travelled to Long Island to help following that disaster.
“My response to the president was ‘Cut the red tape. You’ve got people who are hurting, who are out of power. Let’s get the work done and we’ll fill the paperwork out later.'”
Although Coleman’s term as association president has ended, his office at the north Arkansas cooperative doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere soon. It’s cluttered with personal, business and sports memorabilia ranging from a 2006 St. Louis Cardinals World Series ring to a pair of boots Bill Clinton wore during his presidency. He intends to work “as long as I can be effective and the board will have me.”
He and his wife, Debbie, have two married sons, Nick and Tanner, and four grandchildren. Debbie has worked in child care and education since the early 1980s, with a focus on special-needs children much of the time. The Colemans own Kidspiration Pediatric Ser vices in Mountain Home.
Besides family time skiing and fishing on Lake Norfork, Coleman says he’s also “pretty much obsessed with turkey hunting” even though he didn’t start until he was 40. “That’s pretty much what I look forward to every year.”
When he does retire, some of his favorite memories will come from the overseas electrification projects in Central America. Coleman first visited Guatemala in 2013 to see a project there completed by an Indiana cooperative. That’s when he had the conversation with Esna Vasquez Lucas.
After returning to Arkansas, he raised about $75,000 from the state’s association of electric cooperatives and some vendors who do business with them. More than a dozen linemen volunteered to travel to Guatemala some months later to string power lines and do whatever else was necessary to deliver power to the village.
“On the same day that she got her power,” Coleman says of Esna, “her 92-year-old grandmother got power for the fi rst time.”
The Arkansas cooperatives have made three trips to Guatemala, supplying power to more than 1,000 families. A project in Bolivia in September involved 13 linemen and supplied power to more than 100 homes.
“It’s just an unbelievably moving experience,” Coleman says of the work, adding that “all credit belongs to the linemen, who leave their homes to help people they don’t even know.”
“These men change lives, and in the process their lives get changed as well. They’ve actually helped somebody to see a higher quality of life.”
Which has been the story of electric cooperatives all along, he says.