The voice of Cook

Bill Schalk, longtime spokesman for the Cook Plant in Bridgman, is retiring after 33 years with AEP.

BRIDGMAN — For the past 24 years one man has more or less been the voice of Cook Nuclear Plant. 

That man, Bill Schalk, will retire from that post this week after 33 years with American Electric Power. 

Schalk, 62, started at Cook Plant in 1986 and became spokesman in 1995.

During his time he expanded the position from just external communications, talking with the community and being the go-between for the media, to being an internal communications manager as well. 

“I went to being part of the team, writing speeches, all the newsletters, doing all the presentations, holding the meetings and PowerPoint and so on,” he said. “We still have the external responsibilities, but there’s so much more internally that we do now than we used to do.”

The Royalton Township resident sat down with Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Alexandra Newman recently to talk about how he became Cook’s spokesman and what he plans to do in retirement. 

How did you end up at Cook Plant and eventually become spokesman?

I was a video guy in college. I did TV production and I worked at a TV station in Fort Wayne for nine years, then I kind of wanted to check the corporate side. As you get older and have kids, you start looking at 401Ks and things corporations can get you. The TV station is a young person’s game. 

I went to work for Indiana Michigan Power and I just did it for a year in Fort Wayne, Ind., and then in 1985 they were opening the training center at Cook Plant. It was post Three-Mile Island where they needed training and were going to open a video studio there because they knew the capability of using video to train people. 

So I took that job and came up here in December 1986 as the video guy. They’d never had anything internal like that before, so it was kind of strange for them because they were all engineers. I was the only creative person out of a thousand. That was fun to do. I did that for eight years. Then it was kind of like, do I want to drag all that video equipment – in those days the equipment was a lot heavier – for the rest of my life? 

Then this position opened up. My predecessor was a long-term guy who actually passed away and I came up here in 1995. And also I had started to do some other things than just video. I had my eye on this job all along.

What will you miss most about it?

I’ll miss the work. I like what I do. I like to communicate. I like to take pictures and tell stories. I like to influence people and have a message and get it across. That’s really what it’s all about. Hopefully I can still find some ways to do that on my own terms. Just not going to get paid for it, I might get paid for it. Who knows? But in the meantime even if I’m building a website for my granddaughter’s soccer team, it’s still creativity and doing web and taking pictures and video. I think I will still be able to do a lot of the work, just in a different form with a lot less pressure. No big deadlines or getting up at 4:30 a.m. 

That was going to be one of my questions, what are you not going to miss?

They taught us to think about everything, but I don’t know if they teach us to stop thinking about everything. It’s going to have to be learning how to sleep a little bit and de-stress and not have to carry all those things on your shoulder and mind all the time. And I’m looking forward to that. I won’t have all those people around me anymore. I’ve built up all those friendships and they are going to move on, they still have jobs to do and they don’t have time to go out on a long lunch even if you do now. It’ll be how do I keep those connections too because I’ve made a lot of good friends at work. You get used to all the coffee pot talk. We love our dogs, but they don’t talk back much. 

Do you have a favorite memory?

One of the most interesting times working here was following the Fukushima (Japan) accident. I remember vividly, Larry Webber, who was my boss at the time, said, “This is really big. You need to get out in front of this. People are going to have questions. People are going to be worried.”

So we put together a plan, got some support and started going more aggressively to chambers of commerce, community meetings. We mailed out brochures and there was tons of media interest at the time. That was a chance to ply your trade. Even though under terrible circumstances, nobody would ever want it to happen, but it was a chance to do what I do.

That next morning following the explosion we had “Good Morning America” come out and do a live shot from our plant. We were the first plant in the country that had a network news crew come out. It’s just interesting because out of all the big plants no one would touch it.

So that worked all the way up the chain, not everybody thought we should do it. Shane Leis was our plant manager at the time and I knew he could articulate what we wanted to have said about the issue, and that he was bright and passionate and that he would do a good job. He’d never done an interview before and all these people above me were telling me I had to prepare him and I said, “No, that will just scare him. He knows what to say. He’ll be great.”

I put my job on the line for that. That all happened within 12 hours. This is a Monday afternoon and they went live at 7 a.m. Tuesday. He did a great job and it went great. It was risky, but I had the support of AEP. They’ve always said, if there’s news about us, we want to be the ones to say it. That’s what we’ve always tried to do even locally with much smaller stories. That was a huge day. 

What are your plans for retirement?

I’ve been on the school board. We’ve both been on nonprofits. We’re retiring from all of that. It’s “us” time and we’ll see where that takes us. It’s not to say we won’t add things back, but (Schalk’s wife) Cathie retired right before Christmas, and the kids are mostly gone and we’ve got a grandchild now. Even if I’m just taking pictures of her, I can still do what I like to do and have some fun.

One of the things we’re thinking about is moving to Chicago for a while. We want to downsize anyway and Cathie has always said we should do something different in retirement. It would be highly likely we come back here, but do that city buzz for a while. 

We love sports. We’re going to see the Cubs play all over the Midwest. It’s kind of called sports tourism. You go to Pittsburgh for the weekend and you take in a couple ball games or Cincinnati. So you mix the travel with the games. We do want to try to get healthier and so now it’s time for us to try to do a little bit more.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I just appreciate the people we’ve met in the community. I’ve been involved in a lot of different things and initially we moved to St. Joe and it was the middle of winter and didn’t really know if it was going to work out. It has worked out great. It’s been our home and we’ve made great friends and we’ve got a lot of support back out of the community.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman