News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News Columns

February 16, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Electrician proves to be a real handyman for ad agency

TERRE HAUTE — On a billboard hovering over a busy stretch of U.S. 41 south of Terre Haute, the gritty hands of an electrician look 30 feet wide.

They belong to Norm Cheesman. The creative minds behind a Dinty Moore Beef Stew ad campaign found him, almost by accident, through a nationwide search for “good, hard-working men” whose hands would appear on billboards.

Cheesman fit the criteria like a pair of work gloves. He spent 38 years connecting wires to put light and energy in other folks’ lives. But, as friend Tim Miller put it, “He’s much more than an electrician.” It didn’t take long for the crew at a Minneapolis commercial photography studio to discover that.

As they arranged the billboard project for Dinty Moore, the staff of noted photographer Jim Gallop hunted for the right guys in seven small cities — Battle Creek and Flint in Michigan; Bowling Green and Lexington in Kentucky; Syracuse and Watertown in New York; and Terre Haute. Their callout led to Local 725 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on the city’s east side. An officer at the local originally agreed to make the all-expenses-paid trip to Minneapolis for the Dinty Moore photo shoot last November, but a scheduling conflict arose.

“So he sent me,” Cheesman recalled, with a chuckle, “and here we are.”

The 61-year-old lifelong Terre Hautean was less than two months from retirement (on Dec. 30) when he flew from Indianapolis to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. He and six other hard-workers from those middle-class towns put their hands in front of the camera, and learned something in the process. “As a construction worker, you never really think about that stuff,” Cheesman said. “You go by billboards every day, but you never know what goes into putting one up.”

The agency was dealing with some mystery, too, by using novices as ad models. The agency ran a background check on each guy, but had no idea how the workers would react in a studio setting. “It was kind of like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Julie Gallop, a studio staffer and sister-in-law of the photographer, said by telephone from Minneapolis. Cheesman was a pleasant surprise. “Just a really nice person,” Julie Gallop said, “and the agency just adored him.”

To prepare for the shots, the studio coated Cheesman’s hands with grime — “fake dirt,” as he called it — and told him, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the can of Dinty Moore stew.” He followed instructions, and Jim Gallop “just clicked the pictures off like crazy.” The photo used on the billboard features Cheesman’s hands and two significant symbols of his life. His right hand holds a voltage tester, which was the only electrician’s prop the studio had available. (That model has since been updated and replaced, a quirk that Cheesman’s colleagues quickly noticed and ribbed him about.) His left hand bears the wedding ring his wife, Sherrie, gave him 42 years ago.

In their early years, Norm completed his service in the Air Force and enrolled in the local electrician’s apprenticeship program. In the midst of that four-year training process, he began building their house. At the time, he could’ve used hands that were 30 feet wide, just as they look on that Dinty Moore billboard, which fittingly carries the slogan, “For those who do more.”

“I was working all day, and going to school two nights a week, and working on the house the other five nights,” Cheesman remembered. “I bit off too much. I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody. I had my hands full.”

Fortunately, he had help. His father-in-law was a union electrician, and his father a union sheetmetal worker. “If it hadn’t been for my dad and father-in-law, and Sherrie, and the family, it would’ve killed me,” Cheesman said. With their support, the house got finished in 18 months, and it’s been their home for more than 35 years.

“It’s not a mansion, by any means,” Cheesman said, “but it’s warm and dry.”

They raised two sons, and now have three granddaughters.

Norm and Sherrie, members of Maryland Community Church, have used their skills on mission trips to Georgia (with Habitat for Humanity) and the Central American nation of Guatemala, where the Light and Life School in the rural village of Salquil offers children a bilingual Christian education in the Mayan Ixil and Spanish languages.

Tim Miller, a fellow Maryland member and a Terre Haute heating and cooling contractor, joined Cheesman on two of those missions to the Guatemalan mountain community at the base of an inactive volcano. They worked on the school and performed a total makeover of a missionary’s house. Cheesman impressed Miller not only with his mastery of the electrician’s trade, but also through interactions with the Guatemalan kids.

“Man, this dude has got the most gentle spirit I’ve ever seen,” Miller said.

“He always leads with his heart,” Miller added, “and he makes sure things are right, there.”

As for his own community, Cheesman represented it well in Minnesota. “He would be a good PR guy for your part of the country,” Julie Gallop said. The staff liked his “all-American, Midwest image,” she continued, as “somebody who represented small-town America, a hard-working guy.”

Nearly four decades after he became an electrician following graduation at Honey Creek High School and his Air Force days, Cheesman still believes in his craft and supports vocational education in the schools. “I still think there’s great opportunity out there to make a living with your hands,” he said. “Being an electrician was a great career for me.”

When asked if the ad work could lead to a second career, Cheesman sounded amused. But it’s not a stretch. The Minnesota agency’s interest in Cheesman didn’t end when his Dinty Moore billboards went up last month near Kroger South in Terre Haute and in eight other locations around Indianapolis. The agency’s art director showed Cheesman’s pictures to another client needing a product model — a sunflower seed company — “and the next thing I know, I’m going back to Minneapolis on a plane,” he said.

That was two weeks ago. Cheesman isn’t sure what, if anything, will come of that experience. For now, he’s having fun with it.

“From a construction worker to this — it’s been quite a journey,” he said. “I told Sherrie, the Lord provides, and sometimes in mysterious ways.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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