The beloved mascot of electric cooperatives turned 63 in October. It’s a fitting birth date—National Cooperative Month—for the stalwart yellow figure, who became the embodiment of the fighting cooperative spirit and the symbol of dependable, local, consumer-owned electricity all over the world. (In Latin America, for example, he is known as “Electro Pepe.”)
Willie came to life in 1950, created by the late Andrew “Drew” McLay, a freelance artist working for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), in collaboration with then-RE Magazine editor William Roberts.
Since then, Willie has appeared on scores of promotional items—signage for buildings and substations, T-shirts, ball caps, golf balls, Christmas ornaments, beach towels, fly swatters, aprons, night lights, marbles and other toys, and much more.
But Willie had to fight for his right to stand for electric cooperatives.
In l957, Willie and electric cooperatives won a heated battle with Reddy Kilowatt, “spokescharacter” for the investor-owned power companies. Reddy’s lawyers argued that Willie would confuse the public because he so closely resembled Reddy. “Not so,” said a federal judge. But Reddy and his posse appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. They lost.
Out of the victory, Willie Wiredhand came to symbolize more than cooperative friendliness—he was now the true embodiment of cooperative spunk, willing to stand up for consumers in the face of impossible odds against the entrenched might of huge investor-owned utilities. The phrase “He’s small, but wirey” became part of the trademark Willie was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in 1957.
Willie’s role has continued to evolve over the decades. For example, when the 1970s ushered in an energy crisis, he donned a sweater and hopped on a bicycle, caulked windows, and weather stripped doors in new ads pushing energy conservation and efficiency tips. Later, he became more of a pop-art celebrity, appearing on novelty items like coffee mugs and watches.
But no matter his persona, Willie Wiredhand has been a recognizable and dedicated friend to millions of electric cooperative consumers, faithful and enduring for decades. Happy birthday, Willie.