Don Holkestad

VIDEO and story: Heart of Our City, Started from the bottom

Don Holkestad, the recently retired CEO of CityWest, reflects on his 37-year career at the telecommunications company.

What do the telephone, Internet, television, Toastmasters and Prince Rupert have in common? Don Holkestad.

On New Years Eve day, Holkestad flipped the switch on his 37-year career at CityWest. He went from hanging wires between telephone poles, to putting switchboards in businesses, to operations manager, to CEO.

To steal a line from Drake, he started from the bottom and now he’s here. At 61-years, he retired with his wife, Wendy, to find new ways to get involved in the community, to travel, and — well, he said it’s too early to tell for sure what exactly he’s going to do.

“I didn’t quit because I didn’t like the job, it’s just there comes a time to pull the plug and do other things while you’re still young enough to do them,” Holkestad said.

Despite both their children living in Vancouver and Toronto, the couple have no plans on leaving Prince Rupert unless it involves being a tourist.

Born and raised on the North Coast, the second generation Canadian admires his grandparents tenacity to uproot and build a life on an unknown northern coast.

Holkestad’s grandfather came over from Norway to fish. His wife and their two children stayed behind while he cemented a life for them.

When his grandmother made the move, she started on the East Coast, and crossed the country with their two kids, without English language skills, hoping her husband would be in some place he called Prince Rupert.

Holkestad has spent most of his life in the northern city, save for a year in Victoria and a year in Terrace, where he took an electronics course. When he returned to the coast, he fixed TVs and radios for a year and then applied to CityWest.

“When I first started you had to solder wires together and pretty much the building was all one big switch,” he said.

“The fun part about technology is that it’s changing all the time. In a small town like this, you can influence the direction it goes in, and with most big companies you can’t.”

Technology has come a long way since Holkestad first left his electronics course. When he began at CityWest, he said there were cables in the air that were copper and the insulation was paper covered in lead. He would have to splice the cables, avoid the paper from unravelling, and then re-melt the lead around it. Now, they use plastic.

He reflects that those were the days of party lines, when four people would share one line. The phone would ring a special way in each home so the person would know if the call was for them.

“Then we got to the point where everybody had a private line, which we thought was the be all end all. It’s done. We don’t have to do anything anymore. Then came the Internet,” Holkestad said.

When Internet was first introduced, the company had 12 dial-up modems on a shelf, and he thought it would never go anywhere. Flash forward to this past December when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission declared broadband Internet to be a basic service that all Canadians are entitled to, much like the telephone.

So where does Toastmasters fit into the picture?

When Holkestad stepped into a management role, the small-city employee travelled to Toronto for a meeting with the nations’ independent telephone companies. There were about 200 people in the room, and when he was asked to make an introduction his voice cracked, he shook and the podium shook with him.

“I came back here and I thought, if I’m going to go any further I need to work on this,” he said.

He joined Toastmasters, the club that helps its members with communication and public speaking skills. At first, he said was intimidated and shook like a leaf. Then, he got to the point where it was fun.

“Now, I can get up and talk in front of people. It’s not hard at all,” said the silver-haired man who exudes confidence, charm and flashes dimples whenever he smiles.

He’s also somewhat of an electronic superhero saving the entire north from losing its telecommunications. In the middle of the night, Holkestad said he got a call from Telus, a competing company that was experiencing a problem between Prince Rupert and Terrace. Both microwave links were going down.

“We put them on our fibre network between here and Terrace, otherwise the whole north would have died,” he said. Despite being a competitor, Holkestad said he didn’t hesitate to help.

This was just one of the nail biting moments he shared — making his tenure at CityWest sound anything but dull.

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