By Gwen Kautz, Dawson PPD General Manager
gkautz (at) dawsonpower.com
Every once in awhile you meet someone that has a greater influence in your life than others you meet. That happened to me in 1996. Long before he met me, he had already impacted many in the public power industry. Dawson PPD Board Member Paul Neil was that quintessential leader extraordinaire.
He challenged his colleagues and kept everyone on their toes. Paul inspired involvement in all things public power. To this day, Dawson PPD’s board remains active by attending many meetings that support our organization. A board member here understands that involvement equates to progress that contributes to serving our customers to the fullest extent possible. If, as a Dawson PPD board member, you thought your commitment was one to two days per month, you soon learned you were wrong – all due to Paul’s example.
He was the voice of reason during conflicts, a progressive activist, and he was a friend and confidant over the years. That’s Paul’s history with the industry, but I’d like to share his history with me. Please understand the examples I provide are not indicative that Paul usurped the chain of command at Dawson PPD. He did not – my former manager, Bob Heinz, opened the door such that my strengths could be used for Paul’s pursuit of higher service for our customers.
He was a thinker and not a writer, but I can write. Much of his correspondence filtered through me for fact checking and an improvement to make the message concise and actionable. Sometimes, the intent of his message left me scratching my head until a follow-up conversation shed light (no pun intended) on his goal. From this intervention alone, I was provided great insight into public power’s history and importance. This sometimes required that I “get inside his head,” which wasn’t always easy but always educational. It was Paul who lit my passion for public power.
I became the third wheel at many functions as I trailed behind him and Bob Heinz at regional and national conferences. I soaked up their knowledge by proxy. I was always encouraged to share my thoughts. Sometimes it was received well and other times he would say “you need to think higher.” This was my exposure to the rural electric industry outside of Nebraska and went on for almost 15 years. I never grew tired of his company.
It was always business with Paul. He was well-read on many topics and some of the reading he shared with me went over my head, but I read them anyway. In Paul’s world, just about everything was tied to electric distribution. He was not wrong. The world revolves around electricity.
Paul would introduce me to people in his “upper responsibility realm” at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Mid-West Electric Consumers Association. It seemed he was known by most everyone.
One day, Paul asked me if I aspired to be a general manager and my answer was “of course.” He said, “Good, then I’m not wasting my time.” The mentoring he (and Heinz) provided put me where I am today and for that I’m grateful (most days). When I complained to him about something I was having difficulty with he reminded me, “Remember, you asked for this” and promptly walked away.
We’ve had three disagreements over 20+ years. One thing he made me do that I may never offer forgiveness was read Roberts Rules of Order and Nebraska’s Open Meetings Act completely, twice. I got through both of them once. Another was related to negotiating aspects of the new wholesale power contract with Nebraska Public Power District and, looking back, I am glad I listened to him. The last one was breakfast…yes, breakfast. He is an early riser and at conferences there was an expectation that other Dawson PPD attendees and I would join him. I can’t and won’t roll out of bed to eat breakfast at 5:30 a.m. He finally gave up.
Paul Neil retired from his board duties in May after 48 years of service to the District and the customers he represented. He will be missed by me and many others. He was the voice of reason during conflicts, a progressive activist, and he was a friend and confidant over the years. He will leave a void in our board room. His new journey will provide its own challenges, but I’m confident he’ll face them just like he tackled public power.