Image: David Strange delivers generator
Jeff Roberson  /  AP
David Strange, right, delivers a new generator to William Lee Sunday in Berkley, Ky.
updated 2/2/2009 2:12:37 PM ET 2009-02-02T19:12:37

Piloting his Dodge Dakota through the narrow horse trails of far west Kentucky during the worst power outage in state history, David Strange was quickly earning his new nickname: "the generator man."

The 52-year-old Texas transplant, who has worked dozens of jobs including roughneck, auctioneer, and trailer park landlord, managed to get his hands on 200 units of the disaster region's most precious commodity: gas-powered generators to keep the lights and heat running through a blackout that could last weeks.

Some call him a Good Samaritan — even a godsend — for distributing the machines, which cost anywhere from $450 to $1,100. But Strange has a more earthly view: "I'm a hustler," he said through a Texas drawl that has taken on a touch of Kentucky slide during 22 years of life here.

"But I won't rip anyone off," he added. "I guess that's why I make such a good living. ... People just seek me out when they need something."

Small markups
Strange has marked up prices about $50 to $100, depending on the needs of the customer. He'll install it, pour gas in it, and deliver it night or day to places so remote the deer scurry into the woods as he pulls up.

On Sunday, his customers included an 80-year-old woman who needed an outlet to run her oxygen equipment, a man who counted bloodhounds and rifles as his only companions, and an elderly couple fearful they couldn't run a dialysis machine.

"I just don't know how to put what he's done for us into words," said Janeen Timmons, 62, the dialysis patient. She came up with the godsend moniker in her next breath.

"I was thinking I was going to have to take her to the hospital, until he came out," said her husband, Jimmy Timmons, 63, a retired iron worker. Timmons was reluctant to pour gas into the unit as it ran for the 12 hours a day his wife needs on dialysis, so Strange did it for him in the twilight of a 16-hour workday.

"I'll just get that while I'm here," he said over the machine's humming motor.

Strange operated in the epicenter of an ice storm that has paralyzed communities from the Ozarks to Appalachia since early last week. Officials blamed more than 40 deaths in 9 states on the freeze, most from hypothermia, traffic accidents or carbon monoxide poisoning.

At its height, the storm knocked out power to 1.3 million customers, more than 700,000 of them in Kentucky. By Sunday, the figure in Kentucky had dropped more than half.

Word of mouth via cell phone
But Strange's cell phone was still buzzing with people who heard about his services through the word-of-mouth that travels quickly through small towns, even when telephone lines are dead.

"My brother down in Columbus (Kentucky) got one from him," said William Lee, 55, whose bloodhounds wailed as Strange helped him unload a new 7,000-watt unit.

Strange took that unit to Berkley, Ky., the next town over from Columbus. He bought his generators Sunday from a friend who runs an independent wholesale warehouse in Fulton, Ky., near the Tennessee state line.

The enterprising generator salesman said he has an 11th-grade education, but said he earned a six-figure income last year from various investments and occupations. When asked if his business sense could make him a billionaire if coupled with a college degree, he said he never gave it much thought.

"I just want to be what I am," he said. "A jack of all trades."

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