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January 2022

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'A Sense of Purpose'
Work, Brotherhood and Resolve Give Injured Lineman a Fresh Start

John Pruitt clung with his one good hand to the steel frame of the transmission tower. His right arm was throbbing as it held his weight 70 feet above West Virginia; his left arm limp, in agony, torn from its socket.

Barely a heartbeat earlier, he was scaling the unfinished tower to reach and release the site's crane, happily working a Sunday overtime shift in August 2018.

Fresh out of his apprenticeship with Huntington Local 317, Pruitt never stopped marveling at the bumpy road and lucky breaks that led to his unexpected career

He loved being an IBEW lineman.

Then his left leg slipped.

As Pruitt's arms gripped the beam, momentum shifted his body weight and sent searing pain through his left shoulder.

His mind raced, calculating in microseconds what he'd have to do to survive. He risked slamming into steel if he engaged his safety and let himself fall. Could he keep his balance if he dropped on his own to the beam a foot below?

He had no idea that he'd never climb a tower or pole again. No idea that he was seeing the world from a lineman's bird's-eye view for the last time.

No idea of the anguish ahead — physical, mental, financial — or the indignity of contractor after contractor turning him away.

Until the day that one didn't.

Shane Allison met Pruitt in January 2021 after taking over a difficult transmission line project in the mountains of West Virginia.

"Some of the guys on the job knew John," said Allison, a T&D Power construction manager and journeyman lineman out of Orlando Local 222. "Everything I heard about his prior work ethic is what got me to think that I may have a spot for him."

It had been 21/2 years since the accident, and Pruitt, his wife, Kelli, and their son, now 13, were living in a low-income apartment in Huntington.

They'd lost their house and two vehicles and struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety, troubles he mentions but doesn't dwell on.

"It wasn't all roses," he says, a favorite refrain. "I got down in the dumps sometimes, but I never gave up."

He was tested mightily, not least by six months of "insane physical pain" due to undiagnosed trauma to his left arm.

Hanging seven stories in the air that fateful day, he'd chosen to let his right hand go, sticking the landing on the beam a foot below.

His screams brought his union brothers running. They maneuvered the crane to lower him to safety, then rushed him to a hospital in Charleston.

"They put me to sleep to reset my shoulder and released me to go home that night," Pruitt said. "No one even mentioned a CAT scan."

It took months of torment in physical therapy before a doctor finally did, ordering a scan of the left arm that revealed a mass of shredded ligaments — damage far more severe than a dislocated shoulder.

Surgery helped but it couldn't fully repair his arm, leaving Pruitt with limited strength and range of motion. His pain is manageable but enduring. "If I could describe it," he said, "when you hear about people having bad arthritis, that's how I feel."

He had no interest in a life on disability. He continued with physical therapy, took a $9-an-hour call center job, and relentlessly followed up on referrals from Local 317, determined to put his skills to good use and get back to work alongside his IBEW brothers and sisters.

"I feel so connected to them," Pruitt said. "It's a sense of belonging I can't even put it into words."

He braced for a "no" every time he met with a contractor and was honest to a fault about his limitations. As Allison put it, "John gave me a terrifyingly long list of things he could not do." But it didn't scare him away.

"I needed help bad, and I needed good help," Allison said. "He'd had some bad luck. And I had something I could put him to work doing that would be cost-​effective to the project, and where he'd feel wanted and needed."

Allison charged him with the essential first step, pinpointing where the crew could safely dig. Armed with an iPad and a journeyman's understanding of the job, Pruitt gathered and analyzed data to steer clear of underground telecom and utility lines.

"Shane told me, 'Your job is crucial because without your job being done, we can't do our job,'" he said. "I was ecstatic."

A decade or so earlier, Pruitt didn't know anything about linemen or their work.

He laughs about the day in his early 20s when he stopped by a beauty school to pick up a girlfriend.

"I heard some woman talking about her husband being a lineman," he said. "I thought she meant he played football."

Growing up in Wynne, Ark., Pruitt seemed destined for a vastly different career — professional tap dancing.

He and his identical twin, David, were enthralled from the moment they saw Sammy Davis Jr. tapping on TV. Their mother enrolled them in tap class, leading to a decade of lessons and competitions. The matched set of dancers with clever routines was always a hit.

But again, Pruitt says, "It wasn't all roses."

A teenage father twice over, he moved to West Virginia after graduating high school to be near his children He worked various jobs to help support them, often homeless and without a car.

Gradually he fought his way out of poverty. One day while working at a steel mill, a coworker had exciting news.

"He said, "I got the call from the hall!' He was going to be an IBEW apprentice," Pruitt said.

"We kept in contact, and he kept showing me his paychecks and talking about his travels and the experiences he was having. I was like, man, I want that, too."

From five years' training to his lone month as a journeyman, every day was exhilarating. But the grief of being grounded didn't break his spirit.

"He's so full of life." Allison said. "John could have taken the easy way out; he had the legitimacy with his injury to do that. But that's not who he is."

Knowing the transmission line project would end eventually, Allison urged Pruitt to think about a steadier career in safety. He dove into classes and tests, becoming a Certified Utility Safety Professional last spring.

Sooner than anticipated, he had an offer from a Springfield, Ill, Local 51 signatory contractor. Allison told him, "Dude, I don't want to lose you, but you need to take this."

Pruitt started his new job in July, visiting roadside utility crews in Illinois to perform safety audits and meet with crew members.

While he still longs for the line life, he's profoundly grateful for his new role, one that helps protect others from life-changing injuries.

"It gives me a sense of purpose," Pruitt said. "So does the brotherhood. I have so much pride in it. You see an IBEW sister or a brother out there in the world and you don't feel alone."

It's a feeling he hopes to pass down.

"I may be the first person in my family to be part of the IBEW, but I don't want to be the last," he said. "I'm looking forward to continuing the legacy of the IBEW in the lives of my children and my children's children."



After one month as a journeyman, a life-changing injury grounded West Virginia lineman John Pruitt (at right, both photos). But pain, financial hardship and grief at losing the line life he loved didn't break his spirit. His resolve paid off with a 2021 job offer from IBEW brother and project manager Shane Allison (bottom photo, left), who steered him toward a new career as a certified utility safety professional. Now working in Illinois, Pruitt performs roadside-crew safety audits.