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A LEADER AND A GENTLEMAN: Henry Umscheid

0902
 2014


Henry Umscheid, Bluebonnet’s general manager for almost 30 years, was politically savvy but always congenial. This portrait is from a photo taken in the mid-1990s, near the end of Umscheid's tenure as Bluebonnet’s general manager and his death at 63. (Bluebonnet archive photo)

For nearly 30 years, the friendly, fair-minded Henry Umscheid was the face of Bluebonnet through times of booms and battles

 
“Henry’s picture ought to be in the dictionary next to the definition of statesman.”
— Mike Williams,  Texas Electric Cooperatives president, 1996
 
“If there was anyone who never had an enemy, it was probably Henry Umscheid.”
— John Williams, former Lower Colorado River Authority employee, 1996
 
 
 “The work he did for rural Texas will be forever remembered. 
He made a difference for the future of Texas. He was one of a kind.”
— Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, 1996
 
By Ed Crowell
 
Henry Umscheid, the general manager of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative for nearly three decades, led the co-op through growth, change and challenges. And, everyone agreed: He did it with a smile, a handshake and by shooting straight, no matter how difficult the issue.
 
After his death on Sept. 18, 1996, at 63, he was praised not just by co-workers or colleagues in the state’s power industry, but from political figures who loom large in Texas history.
 
Umscheid worked up until a month before he died. The lanky, energetic man had been diagnosed with leukemia 12 years earlier, but kept at the job with nary a word about his illness to anyone other than his family.
 

((Bluebonnet archive photo))Long before there were PowerPoint presentations, there were posters and markers. Here, Henry Umscheid illustrates the 1963 finances of the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, Bluebonnet’s precursor. Umscheid was business manager of the co-op at that time. 
Some 18 years later, Umscheid gets praise from the current chairman of Bluebonnet’s board of directors, banker Ben Flencher of Somerville. He recalls first working with Umscheid in 1987, when Flencher was first elected to the board.
 
“Henry was an amazing gentleman who always made you feel like he was talking just to you. He was the general manager in an era when he probably was most successful because his political ties and his ability to deal with the right person made him a very influential man,” Flencher said. 
 
***
 
Born in Austin on Sept. 28, 1932, and raised there, Umscheid graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in electrical engineering. In 1961, he went to work for Giddings’ biggest employer, the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, after a brief stint at Pedernales Electric Cooperative. 
 
The Lower Colorado River co-op changed its name to Bluebonnet in the 1960s, and Umscheid moved up from member services and other roles to become business manager. He retained that title even as he ran the co-op after the 1966 death of longtime General Manager Martin G. Hyltin.
 
To no one’s surprise, Bluebonnet’s board of directors named Umscheid general manager in 1969.
 
Texas politics was a field tilled by Umscheid at every opportunity.
 

((White House photo courtesy Gladys Umscheid))Henry Umscheid shakes the hand of President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office in 1966. In the center is Umscheid’s friend, Congressman J.J. ‘Jake’ Pickle, who represented Texas’ 10th District.
He knew Lyndon Johnson when the former president was a senator who stayed close to Texas electric issues and the co-ops he helped launch years earlier. They saw each other occasionally during Johnson’s White House years, and Umscheid visited Washington, D.C., many times to serve on various energy industry committees.
 
Relationships with Texas politicians continued throughout Um-scheid’s long tenure as Bluebonnet’s general manager. 
 
Among those he counted as friends were then-Texas Comptroller John Sharp and the late U.S. Rep. J.J. “Jake” Pickle. Umscheid sent the latter peanuts from Giddings every year at Christmas.
 
“He played a special role in the lives of thousands who never knew him,” Sharp said shortly after Umscheid’s death. ”For me, he was a mentor and a true friend who never hesitated to drop whatever he was doing and lend me a helping hand.”
 
Mark Rose, the LCRA’s general manager from 1990 to 1999, said at the time of Umscheid’s death: “His dedication to his community and members will always be an example to us at the LCRA. Henry sought consensus and peace among all of our customers. He made everyone he met feel respected and cared for.” Today, Rose is Bluebonnet’s general manager.
 
***
 
The issues Umscheid tackled in the 1970s and 1980s were formidable. 
 
The co-op was growing quickly. New technology and changes in the way Bluebonnet operated came fast and furious.
 

((Bluebonnet archive photo))Henry Umscheid at a Bluebonnet Annual Meeting in the mid-1970s. The electric ice cream maker at left is proof that some things never change: Today’s Annual Meetings continue the tradition of offering a large assortment of door prizes.
In 1974, power brokers in the Middle East sharply cut oil and natural gas sales to the U.S. That created a national energy wake-up call.
 
At the same time, inflation was rising sharply across the country, and Bluebonnet’s operating costs spiked. 
 
The LCRA was forced to burn expensive fuel oil in its generation plants and then passed on the costs. Within two years, Bluebonnet and other co-op customers of LCRA raised their electric rates.
 
The rate increases sparked a revolt of sorts among some Bluebonnet members in 1977. 
 
Their goal was to oust the co-op’s board of directors and, in turn, Um-scheid.  A busload of members, most from the Caldwell area, showed up at that year’s Annual Meeting, intent on changing co-op leadership.
 
Umscheid and the directors arrived at the meeting having done the legwork needed to win votes. They successfully retained their positions at the meeting, which drew a crowd of 1,200.
 
The ongoing national energy crisis led to a battle pitting Bluebonnet and Pedernales Electric Cooperative against the LCRA. The two co-ops began planning to build their own power plant near Rockdale. They bought lignite coal reserves in Milam County to fuel the plant, which was to be called Texland. 
 
The LCRA, fearing the loss of nearly half of its wholesale customer base, fought the proposal with high-voltage attorneys and politics, objecting to the Texland permit application that had been filed with the state Public Utility Commission.
 
At the same time, LCRA was seeking approval for a third lignite-burning unit at its Fayette Power Project. 
 
In 1983, the Public Utility Commission ruled in favor of LCRA, saying the Texland project had not proven its case as the better option. In 1985, the sides reached an agreement to stop competing. Eventually, LCRA agreed to pick up the co-ops’ costs of planning Texland.
 
LCRA General Manager Elof Soderberg said Umscheid’s calm nature helped make the settlement possible. 
 
John Williams, a former communications staffer at the LCRA, said of Umscheid: “I had the sense that he believed, ‘Look, I’m the face of Bluebonnet, and there is more to this job than crunching numbers and spending money efficiently.’ ”
 
In an article published after Umscheid’s death, Williams wrote: “For those involved, the LCRA-Texland battle was a black-or-white, line-in-the-sand affair: You were on one side or the other, no fence-straddlers allowed. Longtime relationships became strained or suspect — except for Henry, who continued to come around LCRA offices, smiling and shaking hands and talking. 
 
“Regardless of how people felt about Texland, they still considered him one of the good guys.” 
 
***
 
Umscheid’s work ethic in and out of the office was widely admired.
 
His wife, Gladys, remembers how much “he loved people and would pop up to greet them from his office desk near the front entrance of headquarters. He tried to go around to every department once a week, particularly on Fridays, to talk to employees.”
 
The couple met after Gladys graduated from Giddings High School and began working as a clerk at Bluebonnet in 1959. 
 
When Bluebonnet promoted appliance sales, Umscheid sometimes would help deliver new products to rural members. “Boy, he would come back with some stories and enjoyed everyone he met,” she said.
 
Now 73 and living in Austin, Gladys introduced Henry to the rural life after they married in 1969. They bought 10 acres from her parents and built a home where it was quiet and peaceful. 
 
“We called him Greenacres because he grew up in Austin and just didn’t have the experience of clearing land and living in the country. He had a couple of chainsaw accidents,” Gladys recalled.
 
Gladys left Bluebonnet after the couple married, but she stayed close to many employees who called or visited her husband at home.
 
Krista Umscheid-Ramirez, Henry and Gladys’ daughter (he had two other daughters by a previous marriage), now works in the LCRA’s communications department. She remembers when she was a schoolgirl and the long hours her father put into his job at home.
 
“I can remember paperwork covering the kitchen table when I was growing up, to the point that the family rarely ate there, but would instead eat in the living room. The lights would stay on until well after midnight most nights when he bent over his work with pencil in hand,” she said.
 
Computers began to reach Bluebonnet, so the Umscheids took classes. “Henry wasn’t a geek, but he wanted to learn everything. He loved new technology,” Gladys said.
 
Umscheid’s hands-on community work included decorating parade floats and building golf courses. “Henry took up golf as a way to have meetings with people about co-op business on the course. He was instrumental in getting the Giddings Municipal Golf Course built, arranging for contractors to donate their services and helping dig the irrigation system himself.”
 
Gladys and other employees volunteered to help Umscheid during local elections. He served as Democratic Party chairman for Lee County and would post election results outside the county courthouse on a big blackboard.
 
***
 
Though the Texland struggle took up much of Umscheid’s time in the 1980s, he led several major initiatives during that decade and in the 1990s to change the direction of the growing cooperative.
 
He was instrumental in withdrawing Bluebonnet from the auspices of the federal Rural Electrification Administration, so the co-op could operate as an independent business. The co-op’s REA loans were refinanced by the Cooperative Finance Corp., a member-owned institution that remains Bluebonnet’s primary lender today.
 
Umscheid updated Bluebonnet operations, installing a centralized dispatch center in Giddings in 1984 to answer outage calls around the clock. He also placed the first two-way radio phones in trucks so the center could communicate better with those in the field.
 
In 1988, the co-op began phasing in the monthly reading of meters by employees instead of members. Too many members were not reading meters on time, and new members were not accustomed to the practice. 
 
“It’s a matter of efficiency that this program needs to be implemented,” Umscheid said. It “will pay for itself and ultimately reduce costs.”
 
The general manager also put Bluebonnet on the road to energy conservation with a “Good Cents” homebuilding advisory program that was started just before he died. The first “Good Cents” home was constructed outside Brenham. It was designed to use 50 percent less electricity for heating water and for cooling and heating systems. The co-op offered analyses of building plans and inspections for homeowners participating in the program.
 
By 1994, Bluebonnet had installed 50,000 meters, twice the meter count of 1976. Umscheid oversaw tremendous change and progress leading up to the 21st century.  What he left behind were the building blocks Bluebonnet uses now to promote energy efficiency and deliver power through a reliable, safe and well-maintained system. 
 
Umscheid’s standard is carried on by Bluebonnet’s members, employees and leaders today.
 
_______________
 
Umscheid's initiatives offered more than electricity
 
Growth in the 1990s led Henry Umscheid to push Bluebonnet to provide more than power.
 
The board supported Umscheid’s efforts because he was trying to bring to rural members the kind of services already available in cities, said Ben Flencher, Bluebonnet’s current board chairman.
 

((Rural Electrification Magazine))Though somewhat camera shy, Umscheid made the cover of the national Rural Electrification magazine in 1994, at age 61. The article focused on his ‘non-electric enterprises’ at Bluebonnet, including the Sterling Card Plan, which gave members discounts on pharmacy, vision, dental and hearing aid costs. The service cost an additional $5.75 a month.
Umscheid offered a medical discount program called the Sterling Card Plan. For $5.75 a month, paid along with the electric bill, members could get discounts of 10 to 75 percent on pharmacy, vision, dental and hearing aid costs.
 
The Easy Pay loan program, modeled after one that existed when LCRA ran the co-op, allowed members to finance electric appliances and equipment through Bluebonnet. The items could only be purchased from approved local dealers. That payment was also a part of the electric bill.
 
Providing satellite TV service to members was a program that didn’t work out because of a lack of interest. It is one initiative he regretted, said his wife, Gladys. 
 
The other ventures were eventually discontinued due to a lack of demand, Flencher said. He doesn’t fault Umscheid though — the general manager was experimenting with whatever might help members obtain modern amenities.
 
— Ed Crowell

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