Many people who work in the oil and gas pipeline industry say it’s like a family. To Charles “Buddy” Kervin that’s the literal truth.
Born in 1942, in Livingston, Texas, Kervin was the son of a pipeline right-of-way crew operator who retired when Buddy was still in high school. Jim Kervin was the first in the Kervin family to work in pipeline construction.
“He was the one who started it all out for us, and it mushroomed from there,” Kervin says.
Two of Kervin’s brothers, two brothers-in-law, one son and about 10 nephews and nieces have worked in the pipeline industry. Most have been welders.
Kervin joined the pipeline industry in 1955 as a welder helper and broke out as a welder in 1962. He retired for a year and a half in 2003, became a welding inspector in 2005 and joined Michels Corp. in 2007 as a welder foreman. He has been Michels’ welding superintendent since 2008.
Kervin has played a major role in some of the largest pipeline projects ever built in the lower 48 states. Projects include: Alliance Pipeline, Alberta Clipper, Southern Access/Southern Lights, Flanagan South, Arcadian Haynesville, Tiger, Rich Eagle Ford Mainline (REM), Dakota Access, Keystone, Gulf Coast and Rockies Express (REX).
“That’s an impressive resume,” says Robert Osborn, senior vice president, Michels Pipeline Construction. Osborn’s family also has many ties to the industry.
“Coming from a pipeline family myself, I have a lot of appreciation for what Buddy and his wife, Carol, have accomplished throughout his career,” Osborn adds. “The things they’ve done, places they’ve been, the pipelines they have been a part of and all the good folks they’ve met along the way.”
With Michels, Kervin has the opportunity work alongside some of the younger branches of his family tree on pipeline jobsites. His nephew, Carl Overstreet, is a welder foreman for Michels.
“He is doing an awesome job on some of our toughest projects,” Kervin says. “He has a son, Cody, welding for him and his sister is a Teamster. I also have four nephews who are still working for Michels. I oversee our mainline and distribution welding crews, so I work with all of them from time to time.”
Overstreet appreciates the guidance he’s received from his uncle.
“Buddy’s been more like a dad to me than an uncle,” Overstreet says. “He’s a good guy. He’s as good of a superintendent as you could want to work for or work around. When he’s around, everything goes right.”
He adds that Kervin has “done a lot” for Michels and for the pipeline industry at large.
“I’ve got people who call me every day to ask what Buddy would think about something,” Overstreet adds. “He just helps the industry throughout. A lot of people still listen to him, and he’s usually right.”
In addition to his actual family in the pipeline industry, Kervin explains that the people he’s worked with have also become like family.
“I have my own family members out here and then I have this road family, too. It’s just something that gets in your blood,” he says. “They come out here and work with us, and they decide this is where I want to be. After you get out here and you get it in your system, you can’t get rid of it. After you finish up one job, you’re looking for the next one. I’ve worked in a shop, especially during some winters when it was slow. As soon as pipeline jobs came up, I went right back. You’ve got to go back to what you love, to pipelines.”
Overstreet agrees that pipeliners share a special bond.
“We aren’t like most people,” he says. “We don’t get to stay home a lot, but we’ve got a good family out on the road.”
Start ‘Em Young
Kervin was a high-schooler when he got his first taste of the pipeline industry.
“I started working pipeline when I was 16 as a welder helper,” he says. “It was long days of hard work. When I got out of high school, I was a clerk typist in Houston, for the Cotton Exchange for about a month and a half. Then I heard about a pipeline and I left. I haven’t been back to typing detail since. I knew it wasn’t for me. Ever since then, I’ve been pipelining.”
Kervin remembers his first pipeline job, along the Louisiana coastline.
“It was a pretty good size job, 20-in. pipe that we ran out into the coast. I was 16 then and a welder helper. It was altogether different there. We didn’t have all the power tools. It was just a block brush and a file and you just got on with it.”
As a welder helper, Kervin saw the welders and knew he wanted to become one.
“Five years later, I did. It was about the only thing I knew and it was all I really wanted to do,” he says. “I welded for a couple of years, and then I started running welders for different contractors.”
Overstreet got into the pipeline industry at an even younger age than his uncle.
“I joined the Pipeliners Local Union 798 when I was 14 years old, so I’ve been at it for about 40 years now,” Overstreet says. “When I graduated high school, I went to work pipelining.
“It’s a family tradition,” he adds. “You really didn’t have much of a choice. That’s what I’ve always been. My whole family has always been pipeliners. My son is 23 and he welds for Michels now. We’ve just always done this.”
Good Career, Good People
Despite more than 60 years in the pipeline industry, Kervin has not tired of the lifestyle.
“It’s all I’ve known,” he says. “It is real good money, but you will be out there and be away from your family. You have to be committed to what you do. When you are out here, you are part of a family. It’s really a family atmosphere. You just need to be sure you are committed to that way of life and it will be a good career for you. Once you do it, it gets in your blood. You can’t get rid of it.”
One of the things Kervin is most proud of in his career occurred shortly after joining Michels in 2007.
“When I first started at Michels, we were going to switch over to automatic welding,” he explains. “I worked with Mr. Pat Michels and helped design the mobile welding forwarders and the sleds behind them, and the guys in the Brownsville (Wisconsin) yard built them. We rigged up 18 right away and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Osborn credits Kervin with the accomplishments that Michels has had in the industry.
“Buddy has been a big part of the success we have had at Michels on our major projects,” Osborn says. “He has assembled a very talented group of welders who have become a part of our Michels Pipeline family.”
Kervin explains how welding and the pipeline industry have changed since he first started in 1955.
“There is an emphasis on speed, but also on safety,” he says. “I had to learn the rules to last as long as I have. Michels and their safety program is one of the best in the country, bar none. They are more safety oriented than anyone I’ve been around. We figure out how fast as we can go and still be safe. That’s what it’s all about.”
Although Kervin retired in 2003, it only lasted for a year and a half.
“I got bored,” he says. “You can only fish so much or play so much golf. The guys I played golf with, they didn’t know anything about pipelines. I couldn’t communicate with them about it, so I needed to go back to the people I could communicate with. Pipeliners are my family. That’s just the way it is.”
During that brief hiatus from pipelining, Kervin says he told his wife, Carol, that “she better go find something for us to live in” because they were hitting the road.
“She went and bought us a travel trailer and we haven’t looked back,” he says. “We left the next day and went to California. Pipelining is a lifestyle, that’s what it is.”
Kervin highlights what makes pipelining such a great career.
“More than anything, it’s just being around all the people,” Kervin says. “You get to where it’s just like a family out here. Everybody knows everybody, and each spread has their own group of people and you get to know them all. My wife complains about it all the time. She says, ‘You’ve got more family out there than you do here in town.’ I say, ‘Yeah, pretty much so.’”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.