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Nov 17, 2016 • By

She might be the oldest General Mills retiree

Bea Matson started her General Mills career at 22 unburdened by college debt. There had been no college. There had been no high school, either.  Her view of the world was a bit like peering through a pinhole camera.

When her 42-year career at General Mills ended in 1984, the world had been splashed across a giant technicolor screen, and she had been assigned a starring role.

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She traveled the globe more than once, affected the lives of countless children through her volunteer initiatives, helped Hmong refugees adapt to a new country, earned a patent and supervised a group at what became the James Ford Bell Technical Center.

At age 52, she married and became Bea Merrill.

“You don’t want to rush into those things,” she says.

At 96, a sense of mischief seems to simmer.

Now widowed and living in a retirement community in Luck, Wisconsin, about 90 minutes from our headquarters in Minneapolis, Bea might be our oldest alumni – a living witness to nearly two-thirds of our 150 years.

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No diploma, but she got used to taking tests

The Matsons lived a mile from a grade school in Wisconsin. They could walk to school through eighth grade. High school was another matter. It was seven miles away. And they had to pay. America was throttled by the Great Depression.

“I went to the cities and did housework,” Bea recalls about leaving for Minneapolis-St. Paul at 15 to earn money, some of which she sent home so her younger sister could afford to ride the bus to high school.

“I felt very bad because I didn’t even go to high school. I couldn’t advance my education,” she says.

During her housekeeping years, she took correspondence courses to get a high school level education.

Before she turned 22, the world was at war. General Mills was contributing to the war effort in 1942, like many U.S. industries. One day she took a bus to audition for a job making prisms for gunsights for us.

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“They gave me tests. All these tests. And I thought, ‘I won’t pass them.'”

She recalls job-seekers were asked to take a trial run at polishing prisms. The result could have no scratches. Again, she doubted her abilities.

“I thought, ‘I’ll never get this job. Turns out, they hired me on the spot. They had some fellows trying for these jobs, too. They didn’t last too long. They scratched everything.”

When the war ended she had become known at General Mills as a person to approach not just if a job needed to get done, but it needed to get done with the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.

Among the many retirement letters from executives she received, one read, “When I mentioned you were retiring to a person in Marketing Research, her comment was, ‘Oh no!’ Whenever there is a problem, Bea is the one who bails me out.”

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The patent ‘just happened’

General Mills launched a print publication, “Progress thru Research,” in 1946. Bea was on the first cover. Through the years, she was pictured in the publication pushing a cart through climate-controlled environments, picking packages off shelves to undergo tests that determined how a product fared in varying environments, devising new processes and solving problems.

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Freezing rooms. Streamlining processes. Patents. Being told by firemen to leave as she rolled contents out of our Hennepin Avenue research facility during a costly 1946 fire. She recalls each with nonchalance.

“Oh. The cereal box?” she responds when asked about her 1952 cereal packaging patent. “I don’t know. I was kind of futzin’ around one day and I came up with something and showed my boss. He said, ‘ Why don’t you try that?’ So it just happened.”

So did a wrapping technique she developed with aluminum foil that allowed General Mills to ship cakes and pies undamaged. She devised a better way to seal package flaps that flowed on canvas belts in plants. In addition to the $10 award employees received for honored ideas, she got an extra $100 for that one.

“I was rich,” she says.

In a way. Today, that’s a bit shy of $1,000.

When TV was becoming a living room accessory in 1952, advertisers learned packaging sometimes appeared on screen as “lifeless splotches,” according to one edition of Progress thru Research. So there was Bea in its pages, designing special packaging for use on TV.

Giving

Before her marriage, as Bea Matson, she’d bring her brother’s kids to Minneapolis for a week each summer. Bruce Matson recalls trips to the planetarium, Como Zoo, the Minneapolis Aquatennial, swimming in most every lake in the city, and visits to the research lab on the weekends.

“I remember getting on this cart that was supposed to simulate how packaging would settle,” Bruce recalls. “It had a motor on it and we’d stand on that and turn it on.” For a 10-year-old farm kid, it didn’t get much better than an electric bucking bronco.

“I had more fun taking them around,” Bea says.

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She volunteered during summers at Minnesota’s Camp Lebanon, a faith-based youth camp about two hours northwest of Minneapolis. It thrives today.

After she married co-worker Dan Merrill when she was 52, the Vietnam War was ending. Refugees were arriving. Their work with Hmong refugees shouts from the walls at the retirement community. Wall hangings and artwork given to her reflect those she and her late husband helped. The Merrills fostered two girls, who still visit her. “They call me ‘mom.’” she says, but sounds a little embarrassed about it.

The couple bought a van to help the newly arrived refugees move into housing. “I hauled more mattresses up stairs and loaded more furniture into that van,” she recalls.

How did they get involved?

“Oh, I don’t know. We heard about them, and when they came to this country they had nothing. Absolutely nothing. But they are such wonderful people,“ she says.

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The Merrills taught them to use appliances, drove them to social events and church. Bruce Matson recalls his aunt making several trips to Southeast Asia, and Bea recalls two trips around the world and a long stay in Portugal while Dan was studying tomato plants for General Mills.

Despite having a hip replaced at age 93, Bea gets around with very little help. She doesn’t recall “all the girls” she played broom ball with while at General Mills, but she recalls it was one of her recreations in her younger days.

She doesn’t mull what might have happened if she’d be born later than 1920, the year American women were just getting the right to vote.

“You know, I think everything turned out about right. And I found this great place to retire.”

Editor’s note: In 2016, General Mills is celebrating its 150th anniversaryDiscover more about our past on GeneralMills.com and GeneralMillsHistory.com. If you have a question about our history, or would like to donate an item to the company archives, send our Archives team an email at ask.thearchivist@genmills.com.

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