As a longtime leader retires, HREC makes history with its first female general manager
By Drew Myron
John Gerstenberger—an earnest self-starter who rose from surveyor to systems engineer to general manager—retired in July after 32 years of service to Hood River Electric Cooperative. His replacement, Libby Calnon, is the first female general manager in HREC history.
Libby is only the second female rural electric cooperative manager in Oregon. The first was Cathy Wilson, who served as Wasco Electric Cooperative general manager from 1998 to 2008. Of the nation’s 833 rural electric cooperatives, 74 are managed by women, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
For 20 years, Libby worked in communications and marketing at Columbia River PUD—an electric utility that serves 19,000 accounts in Columbia and Multnomah counties. In that role, she advocated for customers on regional industry issues and worked on projects related to economic development, strategic planning, outage management, emergency response and service improvements. She holds a master’s degree in business administration from Western Governors University, a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Oregon State University and is working toward her Cooperative Finance Professional Certificate through NRECA.
While Libby makes history in the Hood River Valley, she is continuing a family history as the third generation to work in the electric utility industry.
Her father spent more than 40 years in the industry as an electrical engineer and manager, and served as general manager of Skamania PUD. Her uncle was a lineman in Seattle, and her grandmother worked in customer service for Puget Sound Energy. Until recently, Libby’s husband, Rick, worked in information technology at Columbia River PUD.
“I come from a public power family,” Libby says. “I grew up in the halls of a PUD.”
Libby also has deep roots in the area. Her great-grandparents were original members of HREC, and her grandparents, Dayrl and Dorothy Swyers, lived on Paasch Drive. As a child, Libby spent summers and holidays visiting them. Her parents, now retired, live in Underwood, Washington.
“Moving here feels a bit like coming home,” Libby says.
Preserving the Past, Improving the Present
John joined HREC in 1986, working as a systems engineer then going on to serve as general manager for 21 years. Known for his progressive outlook, he made a mark with technology improvements.
“I’ve always been an early adopter,” John says. “When I came to the co-op, the first in-house billing computer system had just been installed. There were no PCs on-site at that time. I brought my own computer.”
There was no internet or email. Now a palm-sized smartphone has more computing power than HREC’s first monster-sized computer.
As general manager, John improved technology and connectivity and made HREC a forerunner by bringing broadband access to the Hood River Valley. Today, the Communications Access Cooperative Holding Enterprise—a nonprofit service through HREC—provides enhanced internet and connectivity for more than 2,000 subscribers.
Another milestone for HREC is the acquisition of its substation from the Bonneville Power Administration. Purchase of the station, located next to the HREC office in Odell, provides significant cost savings and increased efficiency to the cooperative and its members.
In an era of firsts, HREC stands out for its member- investment program. Created in the 1940s, HREC is the only utility in the Pacific Northwest to offer an investment opportunity that benefits both members and the cooperative. Similar to modern crowdfunding, an HREC investment turns members into partners with contributions that help fund utility needs. It typically provides return rates between 1 and 4 percent.
The investment fund is open to all Oregon residents. It has more than 200 contributors.
“The investment opportunity is very unique,” John says. “We were ahead of our time.”
As general manager, he served as steward of the program.
“It’s grown from a financing source for the co-op to a benefit for members,” John says. “We’re not only preserving the heritage of the fund, but at a better level than before. We’re able to preserve and grow.”
Stability is a theme. Just four managers have overseen HREC operations since its inception: Willard Johnson from 1948 to 1973; Theodore Perry from 1973 to 1986; Don Walker from 1986 to 1997; and John from 1997 to 2018.
The board of directors offers longevity as well. Doug Mahurin has served 22 years; Butch Gehrig, 20 years; Patrick Moore, 20 years; Roger Nelson, 17 years; Gary Bloom, 15 years; John McGhee, eight years; Opal DeBoard, eight years; and Dick Sohler, three years. Jeff Osborn recently replaced Bernie Wells, who served for 20 years.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. John and his wife, Lynette, remain in Odell, keeping a home base for an outdoor lifestyle of camping, fishing, hiking and motorcycle adventures.
“What better place to be?” John asks. “It’s super here.”
With the passage of time and leadership, HREC continues its mission detailed in 1945: “It shall be the aim of Hood River Electric Cooperative to make electric energy available to its members at the lowest rate consistent with sound economy and good management.”
Today, the co-op serves approximately 3,800 accounts owned by more than 2,700 members. Energy is delivered from three BPA points of power through approximately 250 miles of distribution line. Today, just as it was when it began 73 years ago, membership to the cooperative is just $5.