Nantucket's Only Female Electrician Is Surfing Into Retirement

Virginia Bullington •

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Sally Bates at Cisco Beach. Photo by Kit Noble

There is no reason for electric work to be a male-dominated trade, and yet, for as long as anyone can remember, Sally Bates has been the only female electrician on Nantucket.

“It makes me sad that more women don’t go into the trade because it is such a great trade for women,” said Bates. “There is some heavy-duty work, but look at the size of me!”

Bates grew up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York and from a young age found she was happiest on the water with a board in the wind. This passion led her to study Physical Education and Recreational Leadership at a two-year college, and afterward to work at the Soil & Water Conservation Department.

“I couldn’t afford to go to four-year college so I finished my degree and went to work,” said Bates. After two years supervising kids on woodlot management, litter pick-ups, and parcourse construction, Bates decided she needed a change of pace. She had some friends doing electrical work in a nearby mall, and she offered to help out. In the state of New York, electricians are not required to have a license, thus she fell into a line of work that would become her destiny.

“I never knew that I was going to be an electrician until I got hired in 1980 to do a Sears department store and a rollerskating rink,” remembered Bates. “I told them I was smart, I can move and learn fast, and had a lot of experience with tools. They hired me.”

So began Bates’ career as an electrician, first in upstate New York, and then to Cohasset, and finally to Nantucket where she resides and runs her business today.

“Nantucket is a great place, I can hear the ocean from my house and I love a good hurricane,” said Bates. “It has changed a lot, but also, where else in the world can you go to the beach and there is no one there?”

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Photo by Kit Noble

It was her love of the beach and windsurfing that brought Nantucket into her life in a roundabout way. She was on a surf trip to the Dominican Republic when she bumped into Nantucket locals Steve McCluskey and Stephen “Spanky” Kania at a bar. As it happened, there were several Nantucketers on vacation who were almost as serious about water sports as Bates was, and they all hit it off.

“They all said, ‘You gotta come to Nantucket,’ I ended up coming here and being busier than I could possibly imagine,” said Bates. “It was insane.”

At that point, Bates had a journeyman’s license and her own business in Cohasset, but once she realized how much work there was on Nantucket, she split her time between the two places. After a few years of this dance, Bates moved to the island full-time in 1988.

“I loved it here, I loved all of my friends and the people here. Sandcastle Construction was the first company to hire me and they are still like family to me,” said Bates, who worked with Sandcastle for over 30 years until she started the process of retiring - sort of.

“It’s funny, I’m really happy to be retired but there’s also a little part of me that’s missing,” said Bates. “I tried to retire before in my fifties but I was so depressed after.”

Although Bates has begun winding down her personal, physical involvement in Bates Electric, her husband, Brooks Hall, and her brother Jay, along with several others keep the business going on the ground.

“I’m still a part of it, I pull all of the permits, I do all of the organizing,” said Bates. “I kind of miss it but I don’t even want to think about missing it! It is very rewarding and I had a very good reputation here and loved the people I worked for.”

“I’m not really retired 100 percent, I still have my master’s license and I’ll still do work for people, my old customers.”

Bates is also the only member of her company to have a master electrician’s license, which requires one to have a journeyman’s license, log 150 classroom hours, and pass a four-hour exam with both multiple-choice and long-form questions.

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Photo by Kit Noble

“I could never finish it, they gave you four hours and I really needed six. Little did I know I had ADHD at the time!” Said Bates. “But I worked really hard for it and I made it happen.”

Bates realized that obtaining her master’s license would be essential after a no-name storm hit the island and her business exploded; A journeyman can have only one person work under them, whereas a master can supervise five journeymen under them. Bates took the exam four times before she passed.

“I’m a hands-on person. I would get really distracted in a classroom,” said Bates. “It’s different when you are doing electrical work because you are just so focused, I can go in and get a job done. I really loved the physical labor of it.”

The physical labor of electrical work and her active lifestyle have taken their toll over the decades, initially contributing to Bates’ decision to step back from her business.

“Electrical work is pretty hard on your body, just ask any electrician about his back and his shoulders,” laughed Bates. “For a time, I couldn’t do yoga, I couldn’t surf, I was in so much pain. I was getting a cortisone shot in my back every three months and my shoulders were shot.”

However, after she was given a free ticket to the Nantucket Yoga Festival in July of 2018, Bates discovered somatics, a physical practice that has alleviated her pain and enabled her to engage in the recreational activities she loves.

“I went to the Yoga Festival and I saw one thing that I could do! It said ‘Essential Somatics,’ no experience needed, and you just lay on your back,” said Bates. “After that, I had a couple of private sessions and then practiced it on my own.”

“I got my last cortisone shot in December 2018 and my doctor in Hyannis asked me what my pain level was, and I said it was a two. I used to go in crying, saying it was a 14.”

Bates hopes to spend more of her time assisting in public somatics classes on the island, teaching privates, and attending trainings, as well as surfing and traveling the world.

“I just feel so lucky to have discovered somatics. Am I going to be a good teacher? I don’t know, I’m a perfectionist and I have a ways to go, but I want people to know that they can fix their own bodies and self-heal,” said Bates. “Now if my body is in pain I just start pandiculating, and it works!”

Bates’ somatics practice is yet another chapter in a long career defined by her do-it-yourself drive and positive attitude. Whether she is laying out the electrical plan for an old house and scrambling up a ladder in a tool belt, or taking time to stretch out on a yoga mat, Bates’ deep self-reliance and self-respect are infused into all that she does.

“No one gave me anything anywhere along the way, I have always had to work really hard,” said Bates. “If you wanna get somewhere in life, you have to do it yourself. As a woman, I always feel like you don’t want to have to depend on a man to give you anything because if they leave or something happens to them you have to support yourself."

And, she added, “I have always been a self-sufficient person my whole life.”

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Another favorite pastime for Bates: recreational scalloping.
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