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VOL. 42 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 16, 2018

Up, up and not going away

Tower climber, 73, not ready to step down from 1,300-foot ascents

By Joe Morris

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Maybe he likes fresh air. Or maybe it’s the view. Whatever the case, and long past the age where many consider the retirement milestone, John Hettish continues to strap on a safety harness, fire up the camera atop his helmet and climbs more than a thousand feet up radio towers to conduct repairs and maintenance.

Hettish, who turned 73 on Jan. 30, is president of Middle Tennessee Two-Way Inc., a company catering to small businesses that use two-radio systems. It also does radio tower service work for electric utilities, manufacturers, and public safety and governmental organizations.

He comes by climbing naturally, first going vertical as a rock climber when he was a young man growing up in the Murfreesboro area.

After finishing college at Middle Tennessee State University, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, eventually becoming an Army Ranger and a captain serving as a company commander in Vietnam. He eventually found his way back to Middle Tennessee and into the radio business.


As part of that, he soon began making his way up “tall towers” of 1,000 feet or more, something he still does routinely. He also shares those climbs thanks to his helmet camera and his YouTube channels (www.youtube.com/user/jhettish, www.youtube.com/user/jhettish1945).

“After Vietnam, I resigned my commission but found it difficult to nail down a job,” Hettish says. “I studied for and received my broadcast engineering license and was being interviewed by several broadcasters and a two-way radio shop.

“The two-way radio shop offered me a job first, and I took it as a temporary thing while I looked at law school and some other options.”

However, he wound up with full custody of his two children, and so he stuck with the radio shop gig, noting that 46 years later he still has that temporary job – which includes shop work as well as the tower climbing.

He opened Middle Tennessee Two-Way with a colleague in May 1983. His original partner died in 2008, and he now has a minor partner and the company employs eight people.

For many, the so-called retirement years beckon with tempting visions of travel, volunteer work and just puttering around in general. As the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, however, many people are continuing to work well after the old red-line retirement day, their 65th birthday.

Some find it economically necessary to do so, while others like Hettish simply don’t want to stop a career they enjoy just yet.

John Hettish’s helmet camera records his work atop this 900 foot broadcast tower in Brentwood, on which he replaced a beacon and stabilized a loose cable. Want to climb a tower with John Hettish or see some other climbs? Visit his YouTube channels: www.youtube.com/user/jhettish, www.youtube.com/user/jhettish1945

-- Screen Grab From Youtube Video “Tower Work In High Winds At 99 Feet” By John Hettish

In Hettish’s case, he was able to build a business that let him do the tower work necessary for income while developing relationships with broadcast engineers and station owners in Middle Tennessee so he wouldn’t have to spend days and weeks away from home.

Although his children are grown and gone, the local nature of his company allows him to keep going as long as he can, especially given the lack of eager younger climbers in his field of vision.

“If you’re just in the tower business, you have to travel,” he explains. “We’re also in the two-way radio business, so the tower work is just another income stream for the company. I get to stay in Middle Tennessee all the time and focus on the local broadcasters in our four- or five-county service area.

“So, I’ve wound up being a trained electronics technician with lots of experience, and I don’t see a lot of people coming up behind me.”

On the radio-building side, he says much of the work has become automated, with components and units becoming ever smaller. Tower work still exists, but that is evolving, as well.

“The guys coming out of college with electrical engineering degrees, they want a high-paying job,” he points out. “I pay myself a salary commensurate with what the company brings in, but it’s probably far less than others in the business are making.

“There’s also a lot of change; you don’t see guys in a plumbing company truck with a two-way radio anymore because they’re using cell phones. But we have created ways for them to be used by changing interfaces and innovating in other ways. We can do that because we’ve been doing this for a while, so experience does count.”

As an example of how longevity matters in the field, he points to a client in Lincoln County.

He designed that client’s setup, known as a simulcast system, which has several transmitters and receivers all using the same frequency. Normally, two people can’t speak at the same time on such a system because they’d create feedback. But this system allows for multiple users by tweaking the system with additional equipment.

“I can do whatever needs to be done,” he acknowledges. “I worked on their microwave system on the bench for most of a week, and then also went out and did some tower work.

“I design public safety radio systems, repair radio equipment, do my own IT work, diagnose and repair broadcast antenna systems and can be seen washing my company truck once a year and sweeping floors quite often.

“It’s kind of neat not knowing what you’re going to do each day, but it can also be kind of aggravating.”

In addition to not being stodgy in terms of having a set schedule of activities, Hettish also is quick to put to rest another trope about older workers having no interest in new technology.

“I recently had to go out to Fayetteville to reboot a county radio system, which meant going 180 feet up the tower,” he recounts. “I saw a lot of cables loose and flopping around, and so took out our drone to get up and identify the problem, and then called the customers to see about securing those cables so we could get the radio going.”

He makes it sound easy.

Tower-climbing is anything but, says Jason Knight, a Nashvillian who worked for more than four years climbing towers and chimneys for Fuellgraf Chimney & Tower, a company that installed and maintained electrical warning lights to illuminate the structure for aircraft.

Hettish is working on replacing the feed line for an antenna at the 104.5 sports radio station tower, which requires a 1,200-foot climb.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“I have heard of some older guys doing it, and it’s worth noting that there is a lot of stamina required,” Knight adds. “If you’re in reasonable shape, you can do it, but your legs, arms and hands get fatigued from the repetitive motion of climbing.

“You’re also carrying all your weight, plus protective gear, and tools and parts. Depending on what the job is, you can be carrying as much as 75 pounds, and you’re moving up a ladder.

“You can cramp and get joint pain, but you can rest. Even so, you’re exposed to the elements, and it’s psychologically challenging in that you really can’t just sit down and rest. You’re working from the moment you begin your climb until you’re back down again.

“It’s a challenge, and I’m really impressed with anyone in their 70s who’s still doing it.”

Hettish still responds to the thrill of that challenge, and that along with an unwillingness to set a fixed stop date keeps him going.

“Do you have any idea when you’ll drive a car for the last time? Most people would say no,” Hettish says.

“Someday I will climb my last tower, but I probably won’t know that until six or seven months go by and I haven’t climbed any. I guess I’ll know I’m done when it happens.”

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