Heartland organizer returns to Madison for philanthropy honor

Walter Canney
Walter Canney

One of the men largely responsible for establishing Heartland recently returned to Madison to be honored by Dakota State University (DSU) for his generosity.  Walter Canney of Lincoln, Nebraska was named Philanthropist of the Year by DSU and received special recognition at its Legends and Legacy banquet in April for his contributions through a scholarship endowment in honor of his late wife, Louella.  A Madison native, Canney’s nearly 40-year career in the electric industry included  time spent working for East River Electric Power Cooperative and helping with the formation of Heartland Consumers Power District.

Canney graduated from Madison High School in 1952 and went on to serve in the United States Navy until 1955, mostly as a member of the ground crew of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team as the aviation storekeeper.  He attended (then) General Beadle, now DSU from December 1955 through June 1957 before graduating from the business school at the University of South Dakota in 1959.  He married fellow General Beadle alum Louella Doyle Canney of Alexandria, South Dakota in 1961 and together they had four children.

Canney’s career in the electric industry began in 1959 with the Rural Electric Administration (REA) in Washington, D.C.  By 1962 he returned to Madison to serve as an assistant to East River Electric General Manager Virgil Hanlon.  While there, Canney was a principal force in creating Heartland Consumers Power District in the general service area of East River.

“In the mid-to-late 60’s, Congress was squeezing the appropriations for the famous two percent rural electric loans,” said Canney.  “At the same time, we were running out of power supply resources and looking for alternatives for generation financing in particular, the heaviest portion of a utility investment.”

Walter Canney, left, and Virgil Hanlon review signed petitions in support of the formation of Heartland in 1968.
Walter Canney, left, and Virgil Hanlon review signed petitions in support of the formation of Heartland in 1968.

According to Canney, South Dakota had passed a public power district law in the 1950’s that was amended at the last minute by private power companies and was thought to be unworkable.  With direction from Hanlon, Canney researched the old law and sought help from Wall Street bankers to come up with a solution that would work with the large scale financing that would soon be needed.  He went on to perform much of the leg work needed towards the formation of the public power district, visiting 36 county seats to explore potential legal challenges, helping produce a map of the proposed district and pitch it to the East River board, and finally circulating petitions.  Canney and project officials collected over 28,500 signatures, and the Lake County Circuit Judge ruled in favor of the formation and set the question before the voters in November 1968.

“When the next election was held, it was approved almost unanimously,” Canney said.  “We faced three or four legal challenges, but always prevailed.  I was essentially the first manager as part of my duties at East River.”

Heartland was established May 6, 1969 as South Dakota’s first public power district.  Hanlon passed away later that year and Canney soon left East River and Madison.  He spent one year in Palmyra, Missouri with Northeast Missouri Electric Power Cooperative before moving to Nebraska and embarking on a 26-year career with Lincoln Electric System (LES).  He became the first CEO of what had previously been two utilities, with over 100,000 customers.  During his tenure, Canney served as President of the America Public Power Association (APPA).  At the time of his presidency, Lincoln was the 30th largest APPA member.

After a decade on the APPA board, Canney was awarded the Alex Radin Distinguished Service Award in 1989. The award, initiated in 1953, is given in recognition of exceptional leadership in and dedication to public power. 

Canney also served as president of the Nebraska Power Association, Nebraska Municipal Power Pool, Missouri Basin Systems Group and the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska.  He was a trustee of the Whooping Crane Trust in Nebraska, including several years as president.  He retired from public service in 1997, but has remained active as a volunteer in his community, the state and region.

East River Electric directors and board members prepare to distribute the Heartland petitions in 1968.
East River Electric directors and board members prepare to distribute the Heartland petitions in 1968.

 

DSU honored Canney for the creation of the Louella Doyle Canney Memorial Scholarship Endowment.  Created in 2015, the scholarship is designed to help students pursuing career fields that mirrored Louella’s passions: education, science and business.  It is awarded to a single recipient and gives preference to students from Lake and Hansen Counties in South Dakota.  It is Canney’s hope, and the hope of his family, that the scholarship will perpetuate the love for education in the recipients that was instilled in Louella as a young girl and that she passed on to her children.

DSU established the Philanthropist of the Year award in 2006 to recognize individuals, couples or families who have demonstrated exceptional generosity in the promotion and support of the university.  Through their philanthropy, the recipients have helped shape Dakota State’s future and enabled the school to better serve its students and the greater DSU community.