After 50 years, ‘I’m gonna work for a while’
It didn’t occur to Lester McGowan on the day of his 50thanniversary that the aromatic spread of chicken, ham, corn bread and mashed potatoes at our Cincinnati plant might be for him.
“It was kind of embarrassing, but surprising, mostly,” said McGowan, 72, as colleagues marked his half a century at the plant last week with a menu of his favorite foods.
He had anticipated that, just maybe, they might have a cake to honor his 50 years as a machine operator in shipping and packing.
“We were kind of laughing at that,” said his daughter and co-worker, Cherie Cundiff, regarding the fact he didn’t expect much fuss that day. “He came up for break and walked right past the break room. He didn’t even notice it.”
As Studs Terkel wrote about the people he captured in “Working,” his 1974 non-fiction book: “It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash…. Perhaps immortality, too.”
Lester McGowan didn’t even expect a party, let alone immortality.
It did come down to daily bread when he started as a 21-year-old.
Twenty cents more an hour swayed him
McGowan, had two job offers in 1967. He could earn $2.72 an hour when he started at the plant, which at the time had a production line for Ralston Purina. That offer was 20 cents more an hour than his other option.
He had majored in business. His wife, who passed away in 2009, was an elementary teacher with a Master’s Degree. The couple raised three children, two of whom work with him.
He began at age 21 on the third shift, working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. After 30 years, he moved to the second shift.
On any shift, he took it seriously.
Cherie Cundiff recalls when she and brother Garred – who also works with dad – had to be sure the McGowan land line phone was resting in its cradle.
“There was a certain time period after school that we were not allowed on the phone,” she recalls. “Call waiting didn’t exist. All my friends knew that I couldn’t be on the phone at that time.”
That’s because the plant might call in McGowan early. It was a constant struggle to keep up with production demand at the time – and he wanted to be accessible.
The rule, she says, was if the call came, they were to tell dad which job the caller was asking the flexible McGowan to do that day. He wanted to be prepared.
The last of the ’60s crew
There was a human thread that ran through most of his time there. Now, the 40 or so colleagues who began with him have retired. He’s had the notion to do the same.
“But it always wins, to keep working. I’m gonna work for a while. When I put it on the scale, I decide to work.”
Maybe it’s in the McGowan blood.
He is the youngest of six kids. His oldest brother, 81, is still a dairy farmer in the family’s hometown of Somerset, Kentucky.
When McGowan was born, Somerset was about half the size of today’s 11,500 population. A 90-minute drive south of Lexington, Kentucky, the town borders the Daniel Boone National Forest. The family farmed about 600 acres.
“That’s a lot of land to do it by hand or horses,” he recalls.
It’s unlikely his colleagues (“Most of them are fairly young,” he says.) can identify with that. But he finds them helpful and enjoys the conversations, which often come back to work – unsurprising for a man with a lifetime of work under his hard hat.
McGowan has six weeks of annual vacation. But he’s knocked off the trip to Europe, and says he manages to keep busy enough that he doesn’t classify anything as a hobby.
In “Working,” among the people Terkel wrote about were those who “savor their daily job.”
At our Cincinnati plant, folks have one of those guys right in front of them.
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