Henry Greer retires after a 56-year career in damage prevention and telecommunications
By Michael Downes
811 Magazines

Henry Greer isn’t an elected official, nor is he a famous public figure. But if you’ve ever had lunch with him in Mississippi, you’d easily mistake him for the mayor, or perhaps a rock star.

“One thing I’ve noticed is you can’t go anywhere in the state without running into someone who knows him,” said Fred Johnson, Mississippi 811 operations manager. “If you go to a place to eat in town, eight times out of 10, someone will come up and speak to him and say hi.”

After nearly 40 years in damage prevention and a total of 56 years working with utilities, Henry is hanging up his hat…

…for the second time.

Henry, who retired from MS811 in June after 20 years as damage prevention coordinator for the central region, had previously retired from Bell South in 1999 before he came to work for his friend Sam Johnson, president of MS811.

“I worked for a lot of people over my career, but I never worked for anybody as good as Sam Johnson,” Henry said. “He has been a friend over the years, and a boss over the last 20 years. I admire the man beyond measure.”

Prior to joining MS811, Henry spent 20 of his 36 years at Bell South as the claims manager for middle Mississippi, handling damage claims when an excavator damaged a Bell South facility.

“I did the same thing with Bell South that I did with Mississippi 811, but at Mississippi 811 I didn’t have to ask people for money,” he said.

But investigating damage to underground utilities is only part of what Henry did over the years. Henry helped roll out several initiatives at MS811 that have received nationwide attention.

“We started roughly 40 damage prevention groups scattered throughout the state,” Henry said. “It is a matter of getting contractors, utilities and anybody who has a dog in the fight to get together and have a conversation and work to solve problems. It’s one of the most unique things we’ve done over time.”

He said that several other states have picked up Mississippi’s model and have launched damage prevention councils with many of the same attributes.

Henry, along with his other damage prevention coordinators, was also a pioneer in helping MS811 map utilities throughout the state and creating a GPS database of precise locations of critical infrastructure and coordinates, saving the call center thousands of dollars in the process.

“We got bids from engineering companies that wanted $20,000 per county to map the state, and they said it would take eight to 10 years,” Henry said. “We decided we could do it better.”

With help from a grant and the backing of the MS811 board, Henry and the two other damage prevention coordinators mapped the entire state in just three and a half years.

“At first I didn’t think it would be a benefit, but Katrina hit and everything south of Jackson was damaged. And the coast was annihilated. There were no landmarks at all. We loaded everything on a laptop and hooked the GPS to it and put in the coordinates. If we hadn’t put it in the system, we’d have been lost.”

The call center — and the associated stakeholder members — have reaped many benefits from the mapping project, he said. The damage prevention coordinators still work to keep all the maps up to date as new subdivisions and developments are created in the state.

Henry’s dedication to hard work didn’t end at the completion of the workday. He spent a great deal of time volunteering with his church and used a great deal of his vacation time to volunteer with mission trips around the globe.

“I’ve been on six of the seven continents,” he said. “We went on a lot of building trips. I’m also a regional ambassador for the Jesus Film project. We go into various countries with equipment that is loaded in a backpack and a four to five-hour battery to show the film anywhere we can.”

Henry plans to spend more time with his wife now that he’s retired, but that doesn’t mean he is abandoning his MS811 family. He keeps in contact with friends and former co-workers on a regular basis.

“I miss the people already. I miss the work, too,” he said. “I made a lot of friends in the digging business over the years, and I appreciate every one of them.”

And the feeling is mutual.

“We are already missing him,” Fred said. “He’s one of the kindest, biggest hearted people you’ll ever know.”

With Henry’s retirement, it’s reasonable to wonder who could follow in his legacy. Fortunately, retired educator John Stallings — brother of South Region Damage Prevention Coordinator Charles Stallings — spent nearly three months learning the ropes from Henry.

While nobody could completely fill Henry’s shoes, he’s confident that the important work of promoting safe excavation and good communication will continue well into the future.