It was just a small story in our morning newspaper, tucked in at the bottom of a page, but it made my knees go weak. A "cardboard container" plant in my hometown was closing. Right away I could hear my father's voice say "corrugated," correcting the headline writer by using the precise term for the company's product. The plant that was closing was the one where my father had worked for 37 years, 25 of them as the general manager. The name of the plant had changed at least twice since Dad retired, because somebody bought somebody else and merged with somebody--who could keep it straight?
Unlike managers today, my father wasn't an outsider who moved to town to run the plant. He had no college degree. His work life began when he was a child, peddling newspapers. After high school, he started in a Nestle factory, then served four years in "the war" (that's WWII). When he came home, he returned to the factory and steadily worked his way up. But even when he began wearing a coat and tie, I don't think he ever forgot his days on the assembly line.
Every so often we'd run into someone, say hello and afterward he'd tell me, "She used to work on my morsel machine." Maybe today's business leaders come right from college or graduate schools and haven't spent time on machines. Perhaps that's part of the reason plants get sold, fold up or close up, without much consideration for the people on the lines.
After a few years, my father moved from the chocolate factory to one that made boxes, eventually becoming the head man at the plant. The company was unionized, but I don't recall the animosity between union and management that I saw later, as a newspaper reporter writing business stories. For years the man who sat across the bargaining table from my dad dressed up at Christmas and played Santa for my sisters and me.
Things weren't always smooth at the plant, and my father wasn't the easiest person to get along with. A man who had a summer job there later told Dad that when the workers would see him walking the floor someone would generally mutter, "Here comes that s.o.b. again." I can still hear Dad laughing at the story. He ran a tight ship and took pride that his plant often had the largest profit margin in the company.
Though he went a long way without a college education, he was the very first to urge his employees to go back to school. A young woman who came to work in the office out of high school took his advice and became an elementary-school teacher. She told my mother years later she would have never gone on if it hadn't been for Dad.
I think my father was happiest when he was at the plant. On Sunday nights, he'd back the car into the garage so he could pull out straight at 7:40 a.m., cutting maybe 10 seconds from a 10-minute commute. During the blizzard of 1966, some fathers in our rural area rode their snowmobiles to the town grocery store for essentials. My mom remembers that when other husbands came home with a loaf of bread and gallon of milk, she got a phone call--Dad had hitched a ride from the store to check up on the closed plant.
The success of his company seemed to be always on his mind. If we went shopping on Saturdays, whether the store sold hardware or toys, I'd see him quickly tip a box upside down to see which competitor had made it. The next Monday morning, he'd tell his sales managers to go after the account.
In my hometown, it seemed every father brought home some kind of treasure from work. One company recycled old clothing to make the backing for linoleum. Sometimes the coins left in the pockets would be squished flat in the shredding process. Now, that was something to bring into show and tell. Boxes weren't that exciting, but Dad did once bring home a beautiful custom-made creation for our poodle and her puppies. The sign that slipped into the top of the box said, in bold black letters, maternity ward.
The plant has essentially closed now, with just a skeleton crew to clean up the paperwork. And 80 employees have lost their jobs. Some have worked there for up to 30 years. In some families, both the husband and wife punched in at the same clock.
The day after the story about the closing ran, I saw the priest from our old parish. "Your father would be crushed, wouldn't he?" he asked. I nodded. Maybe it's just a daughter's pride, but I keep thinking that if Dad were still at the helm, those people wouldn't be out of their jobs. The other image that won't go away is the old man shaking my hand at my father's wake who said simply: "He was a good boss."