Hugh Wallace tends to draw a crowd — or at least a few interested looks — each time he shows up at the International Lineman's Rodeo. The 62-year-old Scotsman isn't the subject of fanfare because of his age, skill at scaling poles or facility around a crossarm, though. More likely, what's drawing all the eyes — and the “ayes” — is his kilt.
Wallace, a fitting instructor in the Training & Development department of Suffolk, England-based UK Power Networks, says his kilt has been his sartorial calling card since his introduction to the International Lineman's Rodeo in 2001. At the time, Wallace's company had just run a safety and skills contest in England called the Milton Challenge, and Wallace was chosen as the official company representative to visit the U.S. to see electric utility linemen's contests in the states.
“It was my first time to Kansas, and I got hooked,” Wallace exclaims, adding that he has made the trip back every year since, always enjoying both the learning opportunities and cross-cultural experiences the rodeo brings each year.
Wallace started as an electrical lineman in England in the late 1960s, a choice he says he made because “it sounded more romantic working up a pole than in a dirty hole,” an early nod to what he will later refer to as his “cheeky” nature. Formal lineman's training, Wallace says, was just coming into vogue in the 1960s; in fact, the company Wallace started with did not have a formal training center but sent its apprentices to college courses in Nottingham. So Wallace went to Nottingham, and, making use of technical certifications earned there, transferred into electrical switchgear, where he took up a position as a “fitter,” one who engineers and fits (installs) switchgear. He also got involved in safety training and a few years later moved to central London to become a technical instructor and safety expert. It was from here that he got his initial assignment to visit the U.S. for the Lineman's Rodeo.
Among the educational benefits to rodeo participation, he says, is the opportunity to compare and contrast safety legislation and procedures between the U.S. and the U.K. In the early 2000s, in particular, Wallace notes, health and safety executives in the U.K. and Europe were ahead of the U.S. in the promotion and advocacy of bans on free-climbing, where line workers are allowed to climb poles without restraints, harnesses or safety wires. At his first few rodeos in the U.S., Wallace says, the use by European climbers of permanent attachments while pole climbing “caused a lot of interest” among U.S. companies, including rodeo host utility Kansas City Power & Light.
“It makes things safer, which is the whole ball game,” Wallace says of the use of restraints while scaling poles. “We had an incident during training where a guy fell about 6 inches (152 mm) down the pole before he was caught by the restraint. Otherwise, he would have fallen at least 20 ft (6 m) to the ground. When he was back on the ground, he said to me, ‘It might be a little bit slower, but at least I'll be going home tonight.’”
Today, Wallace says very few European countries or companies will allow free-climbing, and most of the U.S. is also moving towards bans on free-climbing, spurred on by OSHA initiatives to improve safety.
Wallace appreciates that the rodeo makes an effort to include international teams and participants, commenting that he almost always sees teams from Jamaica, Ireland and England, and has also seen delegations from Chile, Russia, New Zealand and France.
On the personal side, Wallace enjoys the cross-cultural camaraderie the rodeos foster. A host couple that Wallace has stayed with in Missouri is planning a trip to England to meet with Wallace later this year, and Wallace counts linemen and their families from Pennsylvania to California and from Texas to Alaska as friends and colleagues met through the rodeo.
He also makes it a point to travel in the U.S. during his rodeo trips, driving from Chicago to Kansas City, or Kansas City to Denver and Las Vegas. “I want to see the real America rather than flying across and seeing it from the skies,” Wallace comments. “I want to see your history, which to me includes the Wild West, Roy Rogers, and boots and saddles. People in Kansas ask me why do you want to go to Dodge, and I say, well why do you go to the Tower of London when you are here? You want to see our history. I want to see yours.”
Wallace also tries to impart some cross-cultural historical knowledge by wearing his kilt in Kansas. “I'm not sure I wore it my first time there,” he recalls, “but I said if I come back, I'll wear my kilt. The first couple of years it caused quite a stir. People weren't used to seeing somebody in a kilt. Now everyone accepts it, and they would be disappointed if I didn't wear it.”
That said, Wallace also uses the kilt — as well as his rather recognizable last name — to pique rodeo participants' interest in a particular period of British — well, Scottish to be more precise — history. “They recognize the name Wallace and tie it in with William Wallace of ‘Braveheart.’ I could be cheeky and say I am related and he is my brother,” Wallace quips. “But as far as I know, we are not related to that William Wallace.”