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Walt Canney, first-ever head of LES, dies

Walt Canney, first-ever head of LES, dies


In 1970, four years after Lincoln Electric System was formed with the city's purchase of the Lincoln assets of Consumers Public Power District in 1966, voters approved a proposal to form an administrative board to oversee the newly combined utility company.

One of the board's first tasks was hiring an administrator to run LES.

Its choice: a 36-year-old assistant general manager of the Northeast Missouri Electric Power Cooperative.

Walter Canney got an initial salary of $24,000 a year, and he earned every penny of it in the early years of his tenure.

Shortly after Canney took over, he found out LES was technically in default of a bond resolution. He immediately convinced the board to raise rates 11% to boost reserves.

By 1974, LES had taken control of all the former Lincoln facilities owned by Consumers, which had since changed its name to Nebraska Public Power District.

Canney, who died Oct. 14 at age 84, served as LES administrator for 26 years, retiring in 1997.

Shelley-Sahling-Zart, LES' vice president and general counsel, said that in its early days, the utility needed someone who was going to "be a force of nature."

"He had a good, bold vision and knew what he needed to do," said Sahling-Zart, who worked with Canney for close to a decade.

What Canney felt he needed to do for Lincoln's electric service didn't always make others happy, however.

He clashed with officials from the Norris Public Power District over expansion of LES' territory, and he also battled in court with NPPD over electricity rates.

Curt Donaldson, who worked with Canney as a private citizen, a member of the LES board and as a City Council member, said the man was a tough negotiator, especially when it came to NPPD.

Partly to get away from relying on NPPD for power, Canney spearheaded construction of the Laramie River Power Station in Wyoming, which LES jointly owns with several other power companies. The plant opened in 1982.

It was a controversial move at the time, because LES had to take on a lot of debt, and it led to some steep rate increases.

But it also turned LES into more of a power generator and less of a power consumer.

"We really became in charge of our own destiny in terms of (power) generation," Donaldson said.

Sahling-Zart called it an "epic decision," that was likely Canney's signature achievement as head of LES.

"If you were to ask him, I think he'd hang his hat on that," she said.

But she said he also was very proud of helping create the district energy corporation in 1989. The interlocal agreement between the city and county provides low-cost thermal energy to many public buildings and some private ones.

Sahling-Zart said Canney was known for a direct and candid style that probably wouldn't work so well today, but it was what was needed in the early days of LES.

"At the end of the day, he provided the foundation of the utility today," she said.

During his tenure at LES, Canney served on a number of national and state energy associations, including a stint as president of the American Public Power Association.

The South Dakota native also was very active in both state and local community endeavors. He served as a trustee and as president of the Nebraska Whooping Crane Trust. After his retirement, Canney volunteered with the Community Blood Bank and at the Lincoln VA hospital.

In 2007, he donated money to build the Joy Fountain in the Hamann Rose Garden near 27th Street and Capital Parkway. The statue was a tribute to his wife, Louella, who was battling ovarian cancer at the time, as well as all women in the community. He also created an endowed fund in 2017 to provide support for local veterans.

Canney, who was preceded in death by his wife, is survived by three sons, James, Steve and Mark; daughter Ellen Webster; three grandchildren; two sisters; and his companion, Janet Greenwald.

As of Monday, funeral services were still pending.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.


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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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