In 1953, rural Oklahoma was very different from its urban counterparts. After the drastic decline in population following the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the number of rural Oklahomans was dwindling. Rural life struggled, particularly in quality-of-life issues that included a lack of electricity, water, and communication. Cities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Kingfisher, had a high density of customers with rapid growth in population, making them a prime choice for major telecommunication companies to invest in. For small towns and rural counties of Oklahoma, the big, investor-owned service providers, like Southwestern Bell Telephone and General Telephone were not interested in serving the high-cost rural areas.
Based upon the success of the National Rural Electrification movement and the vision of establishing the first Rural Electric Cooperative in the State of Oklahoma in 1936, the Cimarron Electric Cooperative, board of Trustees, in concert with their General Manager Senator Roy Boecher witnessed the need to bring affordable telephone service to their members in Oklahoma. Leveraging their 17-year history and successful track record, along with the support of the Cimarron Electric Cooperative Board of Trustees, their General Manager, Senator Roy Boecher, went to work coordinating with the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) and State Legislature for passage of State Legislation that allowed the formation of the Pioneer Telephone Cooperative, Inc corporation in 1953. It was with this passion that Oklahoma’s first telephone cooperative was established, with four part-time employees including Johnnie Ruhl, a man who would devote his life and passion to bettering the lives of western Oklahomans.
Johnnie Ruhl was 21 years old when he started at Pioneer Telephone Cooperative. Alongside Roy Boecher, Pat Rivers, and Truman Wood, Pioneer Telephone Cooperative established their first telephone exchanges in Loyal, Omega, Oakwood, and Fay, with more than 322 miles of new aerial telephone lines, that provided 8-party-line telephone service to 450 subscribers. Over the decades, as Pioneer Telephone acquired additional telephone “exchanges” in a heavily regulated industry, Johnnie Ruhl was a stabilizing force. He understood the customer service side of the operations and was essential in recruiting and training new employees on the Pioneer culture while building relationships with industry stakeholders. Johnnie Ruhl first became a District Supervisor in 1958 and Assistant General Manager in 1970. By 1983, Pioneer Telephone Cooperative membership would total 27,693 subscribers—over sixty times their original membership number. In 1975 Johnnie Ruhl became General Manager and Roy Boecher continued in the role as CEO and executive advisor to the Pioneer Board of Trustees until stepping down in 1990. Johnnie Ruhl continued pushing the Cooperative forward by embracing additional acquisitions such as Sooner State Telephone, Mid-Western Telephone, Oklahoma Telephone & Telegraph, North Texas Telephone, Byers Petrolia CATV, and the large purchase of the General Telephone & Electric exchanges in Western and Southwestern Oklahoma in 1995. He did this while keeping the cost per customer at a minimum until retiring as CEO in 2003. Richard Ruhl was appointed by the Pioneer Board of Trustees as General Manager in late 1994 and took on the challenge of leading Pioneer Telephone and its vast geographic footprint throughout Western and Eastern Oklahoma and North Texas.
Richard Ruhl grew up with Pioneer. He remembers spending afternoons as a kid rousing around the warehouses with both the Cimarron Electric and Pioneer Telephone employees. He spent his summers starting at the age of 11, working in the telephone instrument repair department, with a fond interest in the early electrical mechanical switching equipment and the two-way and early IMTS mobile telephone systems. During his high school years, Richard continued to work after hours and on weekends in custodial services cleaning offices and the vehicle shop, working with the Outside Plant open-wire wreck out crews during the summer months. In 1976, Mr. Ruhl became a full-time employee and began working in the Outside Plant burial crew whereby the Cooperative was finishing up on the massive conversion to “1-Party” dial service, which required copper cable installation to each customer location. In 1977, Richard moved into the Central Office department and trained and worked on the intensive conversion to 1+DDD, or direct distance dial. This conversion involved the establishment of a new Class 4 Electronic Switching ESS Toll center, and Richard became the lead engineer/technician on the new Northern Telecom SP-1 ESS system. With the extensive growth the Cooperative was experiencing in the late 1970s primarily due to the 1-Party and 1+DDD conversions, the outgrown SP-1 ESS was replaced with a Northern Telecom DMS100/200 toll system, and Richard became the lead technician on the DMS 200 toll system.
As General Manager, Richard Ruhl helped position Pioneer Telephone, through its subsidiaries, to provide its members and customers with cutting-edge telecommunications products and services, including residential and business broadband services, fiber-to-the-home, Giga-bit services, 4G-LTE cellular, 4G-fixed broadband services, E-Rate distance learning, telemedicine, and Special Access services. Richard Ruhl has witnessed an extensive change in the digital landscape and believes the evolution of technology is far from finished. Since assuming the role as General Manager in 1994, Richard has helped guide and lead Pioneer Telephone and its affiliate companies, Pioneer Cellular and Pioneer Long Distance to grow their balance sheets in total assets from $154.5 million in 1994 to over $515 million in 2021, a 330% increase in consolidated assets.
Richard knew when announcing his retirement would take place in September 2022, Pioneer would need a visionary and someone with the right skill set to fill the role of the next General Manager.
“Both my grandfather, Senator Boecher, and my father instilled a customer-first mindset to me at a young age. The primary role of Pioneer has always been to enhance the quality of life of our members and customers living and working throughout western Oklahoma. I truly believe that because of Pioneer’s service-oriented mindset and the phenomenal dedication and commitment of our employees, we have all worked together to make this Cooperative a great success,” General Manager Richard Ruhl said. “The Board of Trustees, who have supported me and been the key to Pioneer’s success over the decades, knew that the next General Manager would have to continue to embody the Cooperative mission founded by my grandfather and my dad from the very beginning. I believe the Board of Trustees wanted to ensure my successor would embody the knowledge and understanding of Pioneer’s history, its culture, and mold that knowledge into a vision in order to continue taking the Cooperative forward into the future.”
When Mr. Ruhl informed the Board of Trustees of his upcoming retirement, the Board began taking the necessary steps in preparing the search for Richard’s successor. After an exhausting search process lasting 18 months, the Board of Trustees, on January 13, 2022, made the important decision and Mr. Blake Callaham, Division Manager of Marketing, Sales & Customer Service, was appointed the Cooperative’s new General Manager effective September 1, 2022. Over the course of the next 7 months, Mr. Callaham will be active in the day-to-day operations as the designated General Manager, with the executive Vice-Presidents reporting to Mr. Callaham.
“The Pioneer Board has spent the last eighteen months undergoing a rigorous internal search for the next General Manager. We believe Blake’s experience, management style, and leadership, will help Pioneer grow in a way that benefits the Cooperative, its Members, and its Employees,” said Gail Parker President of Pioneer Board of Trustees.
Callaham was born and raised in Frederick, Oklahoma where he began his career in 1998 as a Construction Lineman. He spent nearly 15 years in the local operations department where he held various titles including Combination technician, Local Manager & Local Service Administrator throughout Southwest & Central Oklahoma. Since that time, Blake served as Department Manager of Records Administration/Facilities Engineering and has spent the last 6 years serving as Division Manager of Marketing, Sales & Customer Service. Callaham and wife Laura have been married 25 years and have two children, Ashlee and Mason, and 2 grandchildren, Lydia and Stella.
“Blake embodies the culture of Pioneer. His emotional intelligence and his knowledge of Pioneer encompasses everything from our Outside Plant and Engineering employees building fiber to the home, to our Broadband or Cellular Field Technicians, to our local Customer Service Representatives, all working to service the Customer.,” Richard said. “With each new job, he has found how important is it to provide the service and customer care our Members and Customers deserve.”
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Callaham acknowledged the importance of serving communities to continue progress. He has contributed on multiple Chamber of Commerce Boards throughout Western Oklahoma, as well as other non-profit organizations, home-owner associations, and a member of Leadership Oklahoma Class 34.
“Rural Oklahoma is where I was raised. It’s home,” Callaham said. “I recognized how vital Cooperatives like Pioneer are to rural living and wanted to be a part of something great. That’s what brought me to Pioneer. As I grew, both as a person and inside the cooperative, I developed a passion and heart of service for the people at Pioneer and those we serve.”
To better serve his teams, Cooperative, and the people of western Oklahoma, Callaham realized he needed to further his education. Callaham received his Bachelor of Arts in Administrative Leadership at the University of Oklahoma in 2013 and concluded his educational journey in 2016, with a Master of Business Administration at the University of Central Oklahoma.
"When I began my career in 1998 on the construction crew in Frederick, I had no idea of the impact that Pioneer had on so many small communities spread throughout western Oklahoma. It is an honor to be given the opportunity to serve those communities as General Manager and I consider it my duty and responsibility to continue the legacy that Senator Boecher began in 1953,” remarks Callaham.
As General Manager of the Cooperative, Callaham will report directly to the Board of Trustees and will oversee the day-to-day operations, strategic planning, and Federal and State Regulatory issues to name a few. He will also lead an experienced team of Vice-Presidents that are responsible for their respective divisions including Finance, HR, Legal, Network Operations, Marketing, and Sales.
“I have great confidence in Blake’s abilities and believe he encompasses the mission, mindset & values, to take Pioneer forward,” Richard Ruhl said. “Though I will miss all of the employees at Pioneer, I am taking with me many memories and friendships of so many individuals I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years. I also value the multitude of friendships I have made within the telecommunications industry. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity and career I’ve had, and truly feel confident and proud of the direction Pioneer Telephone Cooperative is heading.”
While Richard Ruhl will officially retire from his position on September 1, 2022, the transition from Richard to Blake Callaham as a General Manager has already begun. The future is bright at Pioneer Telephone Cooperative Incorporated, and we look forward to many more years of continued success under the leadership of our new General Manager, Blake Callaham.