Gaining a Sense of Purpose
After a devastating injury, an IBEW member gets a fresh start
John Pruitt clung with his one good hand to the steel frame of the transmission tower. His right arm was throbbing as it held his weight 70 feet above West Virginia; his left arm limp, in agony, torn from its socket.
Barely a heartbeat earlier, he was scaling the unfinished tower to reach and release the site’s crane, happily working a Sunday overtime shift in August 2018.
Fresh out of his apprenticeship with Huntington Local 317, Pruitt never stopped marveling at the bumpy road and lucky breaks that led to his unexpected career
He loved being an IBEW lineman.
Then his left leg slipped.
As Pruitt’s arms gripped the beam, momentum shifted his body weight and sent searing pain through his left shoulder.
His mind raced, calculating in microseconds what he’d have to do to survive. He risked slamming into steel if he engaged his safety and let himself fall. Could he keep his balance if he dropped on his own to the beam a foot below?
He had no idea that he’d never climb a tower or pole again. No idea that he was seeing the world from a lineman’s bird’s-eye view for the last time.
No idea of the anguish ahead — physical, mental, financial — or the indignity of contractor after contractor turning him away.
Until the day that one didn’t.
SHANE ALLISON had taken over a difficult transmission line project in the mountains of West Virginia when he met Pruitt in January 2021.
“Some of the guys on the job knew John. They said he was a really good lineman, but didn’t have much use of his left arm,” said Allison a T&D Power construction manager and journeyman lineman out of Orlando Local 222. “Everything I heard about his prior work ethic is what got me to think that I may have a spot for him.”
It had been two and a half years since the accident, and Pruitt, his wife, Kelli, and their son, now 13, were living in a low-income apartment in Huntington.
They’d lost their house and two vehicles and struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety, troubles he mentions but doesn’t dwell on.
“It wasn’t all roses,” he says, a favorite refrain. “I got down in the dumps sometimes, but I never gave up.”
He was tested mightily, not least by six months of “insane physical pain” due to undiagnosed trauma to his left arm.
Hanging seven stories in the air that fateful day, he’d chosen to let his right hand go, sticking the landing on the beam a foot below.
His screams brought his union brothers running. They maneuvered the crane to lower him to safety, then rushed him to a hospital in Charleston.
“They put me to sleep to reset my shoulder and released me to go home that night,” Pruitt said. “No one even mentioned a CAT scan.”
It took months of torment in physical therapy before a doctor finally did, ordering a scan of the left arm that revealed a mass of shredded ligaments— damage far more severe than a dislocated shoulder. “He said it was the worst he’d ever seen,” Pruitt said.
Surgery helped but it couldn’t fully repair the arm, leaving Pruitt with limited strength and range of motion. His pain is manageable but enduring.
“If I could describe it, when you hear about people having bad arthritis, that’s how I feel,” he said. “I hate it because I’m in my early 30s. I take Ibuprofen so it won’t interfere with my day-to-day activities.”
Pruitt had no interest in a life on disability. He continued with physical therapy, took a $9-an-hour call center job, and relentlessly followed up on referrals from Local 317.
He was determined to put his journeyman skills to good use and get back to work alongside his IBEW brothers and sisters.
“I feel so connected to them, it’s a sense of belonging I can’t even put it into words,” he said.
“Some people have fraternities and sororities. This is what I’m grounded in. This is what gives me my shine in life. When I bang my chest, ‘IBEW’ is what I scream out.”
PRUITT braced for a “no” every time he met with a contractor.
“I understood that everybody couldn’t necessarily use me,” he said. “But I didn’t want to stop trying.”
He was upfront about his limitations — to a fault, as Allison recalls.
“John gave me a terrifyingly long list of things he could not do,” he said. But it didn’t scare him away.
“I needed help bad, and I needed good help,” Allison said. “He’d had some bad luck. And I had something I could put him to work doing that would be cost-effective to the project, and where he’d feel wanted and needed.”
He charged Pruitt with the essential first step in building a tower, pinpointing where the crew could safely dig.
Armed with an iPad and a journeyman’s understanding of the job, Pruitt gathered and analyzed data to ensure that workers avoided underground telecom, gas, water, and electric lines.
“Shane told me, ‘Your job is crucial because without your job being done, we can’t do our job,’” he said.
“I was ecstatic.”
FOR MOST of his life, Pruitt knew nothing about linemen or their work
He laughs about the day in his early 20s when he stopped by a beauty school to pick up a girlfriend.
“I heard some woman talking about her husband being a lineman,” he said. “I thought she meant he played football.”
In fact, Pruitt seemed destined from grade school for an entirely different kind of career — professional tap dancing.
From the moment that he and his identical twin, David, saw Sammy Davis Jr. tapping on TV in the early 1990s, they were enthralled.
Born prematurely to an incarcerated mother in 1986, the boys were raised by a loving foster mom who adopted them at age 7. Seeing her sons’ delight, she enrolled them in tap class, leading to a decade of lessons and competitions. The matched set of tap dancers with clever routines was always a hit.
But again, Pruitt says, “It wasn’t all roses.”
He was a teenage father twice over before the end of high school. After graduating, he followed his ex-girlfriend to West Virginia to be near their children, working a variety of jobs to help support them. He was often homeless, without even a car to sleep in.
Gradually he fought his way out of poverty. One day while working at a steel mill, a friend and coworker had exciting news.
“He said, “I got the call from the hall!’ He was going to be an IBEW apprentice,” Pruitt said.
“We kept in contact, and he kept showing me his paychecks and talking about his travels and the experiences he was having. I was like, man, I want that, too.”
THE THRILLS of a trade that sent him into the skies filled Pruitt with joy, from his five years of training to his lone month as a journeyman, He grieved being grounded. But it didn’t break his spirit.
“He’s so full of life.” Allison said. “John could have taken the easy way out; he had the legitimacy with his injury to do that. But that’s not who he is.”
Impressed by Pruitt’s work and knowing the transmission line project wouldn’t last indefinitely, Allison urged him to think about a steadier career in safety.
Pruitt dove in, taking classes and passing industry tests in spring 2021 to become a Certified Utility Safety Professional.
Opportunity knocked sooner than expected: an offer from Three Phase Line, a Springfield, Ill, Local 51 signatory contractor. Allison told him, “Dude, I don’t want to lose you, but you need to take this.”
Pruitt started his new job in July, visiting roadside utility sites in Illinois to perform safety audits and meet with crew members. He sees himself as their advocate, he says, mindful to do at least as much listening as talking.
He still has the beating heart of a lineman. But he is profoundly grateful for his new role, one that helps protect others from life-changing injuries.
“It gives me a sense of purpose,” Pruitt said. “So does the brotherhood,”
He enthuses about the way that IBEW gear and stickers on vehicles create an instant sense of family — one that “has a place for anyone willing to work and never give up.”
“I have so much pride in it,” he says. “When they say it’s a sisterhood and a brotherhood, that’s what it is. You see an IBEW sister or a brother out there in the world and you don’t feel alone.”
It’s a feeling he hopes to pass down.
“I may be the first person in my family to be part of the IBEW, but I don’t want to be the last,” he said. “I’m looking forward to continuing the legacy of the IBEW in the lives of my children and my children’s children.”