By Gabe Licht
DELANO, MN More than 100 people gathered at the Delano American Legion recently to wish Delano Municipal Utilities General Manager Hal Becker a happy retirement after 31 years of working for the utility.
While several people took the opportunity to thank Becker for his efforts over the years, he refused to take all the credit.
“A lot has been said about, ‘Hal did this or that,’” said Becker, who plans for Wednesday to be his last day on the job. “It’s really my staff. They are what makes me look good.”
Whether Becker wants to take the credit or not, a lot has changed over the years.
“With Hal, we’ve seen major improvements,” DMU foreman Jim Griebel said. “For example, the power plant is now heated and cooled with geothermal energy. We’ve come a long way.”
Griebel joined DMU 28 years ago, and he wasn’t sure why his background was of interest to a utility.
“I was in the gas industry,” Griebel said. “Hal knew electric was going underground, too.”
Becker first talked to the Delano Water, Light, and Power Commission which governs DMU about requiring new developments to have buried power lines 25 or 26 years ago. The rest of the town followed suit over time.
“We knew it would take a long time,” Becker said. “We did sections as money was available and as crews had time.”
It’s taken a quarter of a century to finish the project, as crews recently pulled the last power pole and turned a piece of it into a gun rack that they presented to Becker at his retirement party.
“You picked away at things that needed to be done,” Mayor Dale Graunke said. “I’ve bragged about Delano’s power being underground . . . There was a storm two years ago. Every other town was without power, but not Delano. We take that for granted.”
Delano Water, Light, and Power Commission Chairman Jonathan Ness also spoke of the accomplishment.
“You are a visionary leader,” Ness said. “With burying the power lines, many cities want to do it, but very few do. All these things were a part of Hal’s vision. Delano is a prettier, safer, and more reliable community because of it.”
As Delano has grown, so has its need for power. When Becker started at DMU, the utility could generate slightly more than four megawatts of electricity, and the city used about three megawatts. DMU’s power generation capacity has grown to 24 megawatts, and the city uses about 13 megawatts.
Generator 9 can generate half of that power.
“The crew from DMU actually installed about 90 percent of that generator,” Griebel said. “It is pretty impressive. Every little detail, we took one step at a time. I looked at it and said, ‘No way.’ You need someone to say, ‘Stop and do one step at a time.’ That’s what Hal did.”
Longtime Delano Water, Light, and Power Commission member Larry Bartels spoke of Becker’s penchant for saving money.
“Hal used to tell me how fiscally conservative he was. I said, ‘No, Hal, you’re cheap,’” Bartels said. “Cheap is good. He saved about $1 million at the water treatment plant. He kept all the equipment in top condition. If he asked for something new, we could be sure he’d gotten all the life out of it. He has a sense of ownership. If there was a problem with service, he took it personally.”
Becker had learned during a water treatment training class that the city of Chaska was looking to sell four water-treatment tanks. He promptly left the classroom to call about those tanks, and the utility was ultimately able to purchase them at a steep discount.
The facility is poised for growth, as it only uses one tank at a time. A movable wall will allow the plant to easily expand if more tanks are needed in the future.
Becker has used his connections with other utilities and organizations like the Minnesota Municipal Utility Association and Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency to acquire used equipment, sometimes for pennies on the dollar, to save the community money.
“We ask other utilities for materials and vice versa,” Becker said. “We work closely with Wright-Hennepin. I’ve developed close friendships and associations.”
Becker was once the president of MMUA and received the American Public Power Association’s Larry Hobart Seven Hats Award for demonstrating “accomplishments in planning and design, administration, public relations, field supervision, accounting, human resources, and community leadership.”
MMUA Director Jack Kagel called him “a great president and a great friend.”
He joked about Becker exploring off-limits areas of buildings in Washington, DC, and said Becker “should have gotten the MMUA purple heart because he was wounded” when he hit his head on a nightstand at a hotel while attending an MMUA convention.
Mike Gavin, an attorney with CMMPA, talked about getting to know Becker while flying to different events and meetings.
“What a fine man he is,” Gavin said. “His dad was unable to get up into a deer stand, so Hal purchased a deer stand with a hydraulic lift.”
Becker, who grew up in Osakis, said electricity has been a part of his life for a long time. His first job was putting electric wiring in boats, and he went on to work on the electric systems of A-4 planes in the Marines before attending the University of Minnesota.
While earning a mathematics degree at the U of M, Becker met his wife, Deanna. Becker then earned his journeyman and master electrician license at a community college in St. Paul.
His first job after college was in Spring Valley.
“I was offered this job and turned it down at first,” Becker said. “I was a union electrician at the time. I was offered the job again and accepted it. I started as a lineman for about three years and worked my way into this job.”
Becker has seen the way energy is bought change over the years, while there are also more requirements for green energy from sources such as wind and solar.
No two days have ever been the same.
“The biggest thing I really enjoyed was every day was different,” Becker said. “I could work on several projects and stay busy. It never got boring. The industry is changing so fast it happens automatically.”
Technology is one large facet that has changed.
“When I started, we were sending information for utility bills to a company in Mankato,” Becker said. “One of the first projects was bringing that in-house and computerizing it.”
He appreciates the staff members who have made projects like that possible over the years.
“I’ll miss my staff and crew,” Becker said. “I’ll probably stop in once in a while with donuts.”
He is also appreciative of the commissioners he has worked with over the years.
“I’d like to thank all the commissioners for all their support,” Becker said.
In his retirement, he is looking forward to spending more time with his family, spoiling his grandson, hunting, fishing, and traveling.