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From Tube Caddy to Laser Beams: Schiltz Retires After 45 Years

  • Posted: 01.07.2021

When asked if he remembered what he did on his first day at NIPCO, Senior Telecommunications & Facilities Advisor Keith Schiltz quickly reached into his file cabinet. “Well, let me tell you!” Schiltz pulls from the drawer his time sheet record book, one of many that has been neatly filed away for reference, and looks at the first page, dated June 9, 1975. “Station inspection at Eagle & J1 for 6 hours and Supervisory Control Center for 2 hours,” he reads. Thus, Schiltz completed his first day at NIPCO. His career, upon his January 22 retirement, spans 45 years with the generation and transmission cooperative.

Schiltz would be considered a “franchise player” on the NIPCO team. After taking a military aptitude test in high school, which Schiltz remarked, “…we were all required to do at that time…," he discovered he had a proficiency for electronic communications. He was intrigued and quickly determined he would go to trade school to obtain a degree in the discipline and go to work. Following his graduation from Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City, Iowa, Schiltz landed a job at NIPCO as a Telecommunications Technician, reporting to Tom Gaul who worked as MRC (Metering, Relaying & Communications) Manager.

Schiltz poses with his tube caddy and holds up one of many tubes that are contained within it.

At that time, Keith performed his work equipped with a “Tube Caddy”, a small suitcase filled with different types of filament tubes, each specially designed to fit in a variety of communication components. His job was to maintain NIPCO’s two-way radios and microwave communication system, which was the cooperative’s primary mode of communication between trucks and substations, respectively. “We were working with frequencies and analogue systems,” said Schiltz. “Very ‘old school’.” When the concept of PCS began to emerge, the “Personal Communication System”, better known as cellular phones, edged out the microwave ranges that NIPCO owned to manage their own communications. “NIPCO’s microwave frequencies were auctioned off by third-parties on NIPCO’s behalf and NIPCO was directed to reinvest the proceeds into building a new communications network, recalled Schiltz. “There were three options we considered: a) move to another microwave system; b) leasing T1 capacity (copper wiring communication transmission technology) from a telephone company; or c) develop a fiber network that NIPCO would build, own, and self-maintain. We knew we wanted a system that we could manage so the decision was an easy one: build our own fiber network.” Keith Schiltz has led the development and on-going expansion of NIPCO’s fiber network ever since.

Posing in the NIPCO Control Center (circa 1990) are members of the Metering, Relaying, and Communications team (from left to right) Keith Schiltz, Tom Gaul, Tom Van Hoff, Bob Frerichs, Tim Hansen, Ken Kolker, and Denny HIll.

Schiltz has seen the technology evolve from tubes to transistors, then from transistors to solid state chips and then to surface mount chips. When asked whether maintaining a fiber network is easier or more complex than the former tube technology, Schiltz paused for a moment, “Things are more reliable and efficient, today.” He pulls out a white paper document. “Communication technology is digital: ones and zeroes. It travels through lasers in glass tubes the size of human hairs. The processors we use today? Thirty million transistors can fit onto a chip that is the size of a pinhead.”

Photo image of fiber optic strands
Fiber optics, like these, serve as a telecommunications pathway for NIPCO. In addition to carrying data to and from NIPCO's electric infrastructure, it also provides a communications superhighway for several other organizations who lease transmission capacity on NIPCO's fiber ring.

When asked if technology would play a role in his retirement, he remarked that he had not planned on it. In fact, Keith and his wife, Deb, would rather travel the world and are hoping to get to the Caribbean and the Cayman Islands or even add a fourth safari to their travelogue. Stateside, they also hope to check off several more National Park visits and spend more time at their lake cabin in the Iowa Great Lakes. Of course, they also look forward to seeing more of their three daughters and their families, including six grandchildren.

Schiltz is grateful for his experience at NIPCO, noting that it is a great place to work and appreciates how family-oriented the cooperative culture has been.

When asked how he will feel when that door closes behind him, following his decades-long tenure at NIPCO, Keith believes there will be sense of freedom in knowing that his days are no longer ruled by an alarm clock or a meeting calendar. “My time will be my own and I can kind of ‘let each day unfold’.”

Congratulations, Keith, on your retirement and thank you for all you have contributed to the NIPCO organizations and its membership.

Photo collage of the Schiltz family
Keith Schiltz and his wife, Deb, are surrounded by their daughters and their families. Also pictured is the newest granddaughter, born in December.