Sweat, Tears and a Home for GM Memories
Note: This post is the second part of a two-part series. Read Part 1.
To donate General Motors-related items to the Legacy Center, email Dona Dutcher or call 608-290-1769.
On Oct. 17 a traveling group of performers from New York, The Public Theater, made their way to Janesville to present for free the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning production of Sweat by Lynn Nottage. The four-week tour began Sept. 27 and traveled across Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Sweat is about a group of friends who have spent their lives working together on the factory floor. When word of layoffs begins, rifts form, damaging trust and pitting them against each other. It is an eerie reflection of what Janesville went through leading up to the closing of our GM plant in 2008.
I arrive at the UAW building just as the sun sinks beyond the half-bare trees of autumn to the west. A busy team of The Public Theater’s staff is bustling about with last-minute preparations, arranging audience chairs and chatting off to the side. I am already moved by what I see.
Several of the chairs fill as the crowd begins to shuffle in from the chilly night air. I figure I better grab a good spot before it’s too late.
The set is simple; a bar, some stools and a couple of tables. On the large mirror behind the bar is written 2008. The scenes flashback to earlier and later years as events unfolded.
The play’s writer, Lynn Nottage, brilliantly captures the essence of what life was like for the union workers of an industrial plant in the late 2000s. She interviewed several residents of Redding, PA, as the basis for the play. Sweat received three 2017 Tony Award nominations: Best Play and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for both Johanna Day and Michelle Wilson. Additionally, Sweat won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The show opens, actors enter, and immediately there’s a lot of movement, shouting, drama and raw emotion in their faces, gestures in their arms and hands. There are rumors of the plant closing. They need to know if it is true. Who heard what? He said, she said. “Why haven’t they told us? What am I going to do?” The questions arise in the heat of the moment.
The relationships on the stage range from best friends to co-workers, bartender and ethnic employee, mother and son, husband and wife, parole officer and prisoner. And Lynn finds a way through the dialogue to keenly develop these characters to the point that we feel as if they were our own neighbor.
The story explores friendships, corporate ambition, unemployment, poverty, sacrifice and desperation leading to drugs, crime and incarceration. On a deeper level, it reveals what it means to be human, what it means to love and protect family; it explores the bonds of friendship, the pain of loss, resilience, and redemption.
The acting is brilliant, directing phenomenal. As an audience member, I begin to feel as if I am in that bar, a patron at my own table, witnessing these lively, sometimes heated conversations. They don’t notice me, or anyone else, yet I feel like I could join in the conversation at any time. I wouldn’t dare, but not because I’m aware that I’m in the audience. No, that line of distinction is washed away by the professionalism of this production. I don’t join in because I recognize the anger and I see the aggression. The actors express everything from laughter and love to despair, even violence throughout the play.
The audience is moved to laughter, brought to tears. They relate. They understand. They feel it in their core. Though I never worked at GM, I experience an array of emotions, as well. I remember friends who were devastated by the news of GM’s closing. We all were impacted one way or another. It mattered. It changed us, changed Janesville, the closing devastated our economy, injured our pride and weakened community morale.
My own husband’s company, Gilman Engineering, which made auto-manufacturing machinery for GM, changed ownership and downsized. We were thankful that his job was spared. Yet he, too, ended up traveling more than usual in his work, mostly to the Detroit area, while I stayed here with our children.
I was working part-time for the School District of Janesville, raising our three sons, trying to do my best playing both roles of Mom and Dad, 24/7. We had lost both sets of parents many years before, so the boys had no grandparents and we had no family living nearby to help. We were content to live more simply on his income, plus my minor contributions, so that I could be there for our children. It was Mommy who showed up at the band concerts and Mom who hauled them to and from soccer and driver’s ed classes, Mom who commanded, “Brake hard!” on the empty parking lot ice so they would learn what it felt like to lack control on slippery Wisconsin roads in winter.
We cherished time with Daddy when he was home, especially the love he showed us through his delicious, gourmet, home-cooked meals. Cooking was never one of my talents. And they were glad for Dad’s occasional help with their physics homework or higher-level math, also not my forte. Sometimes I resented his traveling, this change that wasn’t his own fault. I knew it wasn’t, but that didn’t make it easier.
All these thoughts swirl around in my mind as I watch the action and drama unfold before me, as I think of the GM transfers, of that choice they had to make, of family they left behind. I am grateful of how lucky we were compared to so many.
After an amazing production, the actors stop. In the silence one could hear a pin drop. We are all still so tense from emotional reactions that we’re hardly breathing. It is an incredibly passionate ending and through the applause, the crowd stands for an ovation. Well deserved!
The theatrical group’s leader, Chiara Klein, hops to the stage with her microphone to begin a talk back with the audience. People are so moved by the production that emotions are still running high as they take the mic and share their own experiences at GM, the conflicts between the union and non-union workers, the hardship and turmoil they endured. They stammer through tears with stories of when they caught wind of the closing, how families were torn apart because of those transfers to Indiana and other states. They speak of how they couldn’t be there for their son’s ball game or their daughter’s academic award night. Feelings I’m sure my own husband went through.
As the audience begins to disperse, I meander through the crowd, hoping to speak to a few folks and take their stories. Luckily, I land a brief interview with Chiara, the Mobile Unit National Project Leader.
Chiara Klein, The Public Theater – Mobile Unit National Project Leader
What motivated you to bring Sweat to Janesville?
During the whole year that I did this project, I was looking for communities and I let the project drive itself a little bit. Then, I found myself in Kenosha and Columbus. In both of those communities, people asked, “Are you going to Janesville with this? You should go to Janesville with this.” So, I went to Janesville!
One of the organizing principles around this project was looking for communities where there would be a lot of interesting conversations. We used political division as a kind of criterion, but Rock County was solidly blue, and therefore it didn’t make my list. We only have so many communities we could go to. However, because I heard, “You have to go to Janesville.” I listened.
I talked to people, met people here, and realized that we had to come here. I had read the book Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein and had done my research. Through this process, I met Dona Dutcher and learned about the BHCCU Legacy Center project.
Our whole play is about how stories build communities, and this is a community with so many stories. I think Janesville is going through an important moment, and we just happen to be here for it. Dona put it beautifully. She said, “The plant is being dismantled, yet people’s memories and stories don’t go away.”
We are hoping to come back a few times to help kick off the Legacy Center. We want to be there to help create a community of sharing and healing, however we can be deployed. We want to help because that’s what it’s all about.
Glenn Lea, Retired GM Employee, first President of Blackhawk Community Credit Union, BHCCU Director Emeritus
What do you think of the Legacy Center idea?
I think it’s an excellent idea. GM has meant so much to this community. Someone in every family is connected to GM.
When I walked into the preview event here, and I saw those coveralls hanging, I said, “I remember them.”
You know, years ago, when you’d come to Janesville, just about everybody you talked to had either a son or a daughter or relation that worked for General Motors. We still have so many people that have connections to GM. It’s so nice.
I came to Janesville in 1955 to get a job at GM because it was one of the better places in the city to work. I enjoyed working there and held several different positions, even got to be a utility man. After about a year-a-and-a-half, I got involved with the union.
Tell me how that happened.
I’d had an issue, so I went to a union meeting and complained about it. And they said, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.” The very next day, they came and offered me a committee position!
My employee told me that he had read in the newspaper, “If you don’t have a credit union, you should get one.” So, I contacted the union president. Then, he made the contacts, and we had our first meeting.
I was very involved when the credit union started. I really didn’t understand interest rates, simple interest and add-on interest, so I learned and got involved with that.
What is your role today?
Currently, I serve as an Emeritus Board Member of the credit union. I don’t make any decisions, but I can voice my opinion. I’m so proud of what they do and how they’re carrying on the tradition.
I think the credit union is in excellent shape. We’re so much different than other places. We really work together with the people and get everything taken care of.
Do you feel that Janesville’s bouncing back?
I think so. There are a lot of new things coming up!
View a short video of Glenn talking about the Legacy Center:
Steve Knox, BHCCU Board Associate Director
I’m on the board of directors for the credit union. The credit union was founded at GM. My grandfather worked there and my great-grandfathers did. Though I never worked there, we have the family legacy. I have so much to be thankful for, my family gave me a very good life.
There were many orange doors along the building, but there was a specific orange door. When I was young and we’d drive by the plant, my grandpa used to say, “Hey, that’s where I take my breaks.” Years later, when we’d go down Delevan Drive with my daughter Laura, who’s going to be 15 now, it was always a conversation piece. She’d say, “That’s where great-grandpa took his breaks, right?”
After the building was closed, and it slowly started being dismantled, we were watching the building crumble next to the orange door. But there was this one spot that stood for three weeks … and there was that orange door.
What made you want to be a part of this?
Well, if you have any fiber of Janesville in you, whether you’re involved in GM or not, and if an opportunity like this comes up, you get goosebumps. This is just amazing. For 10 years this place has been gone. Ten years. You walk into this and see the emotion in the people when they see those signs. There’s a different look in their eyes.
Tom Brien, retired GM Employee, BHCCU Board of Directors
How did you get started at GM?
I graduated from high school 1966 from Adams-Friendship. I had a seasonal job, and had friends that came down to the plant right from high school. So, I figured I come down and fill out applications. It was Fisher Body, Chevrolet and Chrysler just opened up. The personal director back then asked me if I could do five push-ups. I did my five push-ups, he said, “I’ll be back at three o’ clock to fill out your paperwork. You start tonight.”
That was Sept. 7, 1967. That’s my seniority date. I was with GM for 43 years.
What were some of your positions?
I did everything over the 43 years. I started out on nights. At one point, I had the whole motor line. The team coordinator and I would give Bathroom Calls, 20 Man Calls and things like that. We needed the seniority to get days. After eight or nine years, I had enough seniority.
I had a son then who was starting to get into sports. I wanted to go days, so I could be a part of that. I worked on the medium-duty truck, spent a lot of time in inspection. I worked about every place but the body shop.
Reflecting on working at GM, what do you remember?
Through the years a good work ethic was one of the things we benefited from, because the people who worked there came from the farms. We had dads, uncles, brothers who had come here from experienced farm work. They had that work ethic, which was something other places didn’t have.
As time went on and jobs were very scarce, people were crying if they didn’t get in.
Eventually, we lost our pickup truck to Fort Wayne, Indiana. A lot of people in Janesville transferred to Fort Wayne. They wanted Janesville to continue to build that truck, until they got tooled up, so they wouldn’t lose production. They hired a bunch of people in 1986, as temporaries. And once they were up to speed down there, they would get laid off.
Eventually, we got the medium-duty truck. A lot of those people who were hired in 1986, were able to continue at the plant. Many of those transfers got their 30 years in now, so they can retire and come back home.
Did your son work at the plant, too?
My son graduated in 1986 and he really wanted to go to college, so I got him a summer position at GM. Then, he changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to go to college. I was able to get him in the last group hired for replacements.
Later, he met his wife at GM. He was running for secretary, and he got to talking with her … and she wouldn’t let him leave! I don’t know whether he asked her out or she asked him out, but that’s where they met.
He had to transfer to Arlington, Texas. That was the first plant that opened up that was going to accept people. He moved to Arlington and was then offered a job at the UAW in Detroit. He worked for them and is still there. That’s not too far. He now has twin boys who are 15, both college material.
What was it like for you when you heard the plant was closing?
You know, even when you go back and talk to people, they say General Motors admitted that they closed the wrong plant. Bush was president. He’s from Texas. Toyota built a brand-new truck plant in Texas, and General Motors wanted to prove to them that they could go head-to-head with Toyota and build trucks. Those were some of the reasons that led to it.
We would watch it being chipped away, we see those drone photos … it’s hard to see it go. Like you say, I spent half my lifetime working there.
So, what does this Legacy Center mean to you?
To go around and look at the stuff, it brings back a lot of old memories. I was the financial secretary to the local.
See that United Way sign? Ron Monat was the first person from the UAW to chair the United Way, the first time there was a union management team. Together, we raised about $2 million in just over a year. That wasn’t just from General Motors, it was from the whole community! But, the plant was one of the biggest contributors for the United Way.
Tell me about serving on the credit union board.
Unfortunately, I came on right before the economy tanked. I was there for the eight years after the plant closed.
The credit union worked as best as they legally could to make sure that GM people wouldn’t lose their homes. They helped folks to refinance and such.
At one point, they were going to shut us down. Thankfully, we got Sherri Stumpf on board. It’s been a long process, but we were able to weather the storm and build what you see now. It’s obvious how we’ve expanded over the last few years!
Now, with this Legacy Center, it really shows their commitment not only to the people at general motors who started the credit union, but to the community as well.
Gary Miller, retired GM Employee
How long did you work at GM?
I worked for GM for 32 years. I came here Oct. 22, 1958, by accident. We were laid-off of where we worked. We stopped down at three o’ clock in the afternoon, just to get our cards signed, and they hired us! We had to come into work the next morning! So that’s how I ended up at GM.
I retired in 1991.
What were your jobs?
I worked seven years on the line. My first job was putting standard transmissions on. That was heavy. I thought it couldn’t get any worse. My second job I worked front spring compressor. That was 48 pounds every job!
It seemed like I just bounced around. And in 1967 I went on salary. Then the hard work began! We put a lot of hours in.
What do you think of the Legacy Center? Are you glad to be here today?
Oh gosh yes! When I saw this, it was more than I thought it would be. It fits in with all the revitalization of downtown. This will be another plus! I’m really impressed with it all and so glad to see it. And now we have a place for our stuff! We have things to donate. I’m really glad about this.
Tell me about being the subjects of that iconic 1950s-style photo.
We are the couple in the photo. My wife is in the poodle skirt, which she made. We took that picture around 1991 at the Rotary Gardens and it was hanging in the break room at the plant. When they planned this preview event, they called us to get the history on the photo and invited us to the event.
This brings back memories.
Gary Mawhinney, former GM Employee, BHCCU Legacy Center Board
How did you first acquire that beautiful 1923 car?
It started out when I was sitting in the Rock County Historical Society’s basement. I was looking at the Samson Tractor there.
I was aware of a ‘23 Chevy that sat in the lobby of the GM plant for many years. And I thought, “They need a ‘23 Chevy to go along with the Samson Tractor and the truck.”
So, I got ahold of the Heritage Museum in Sterling Heights, MI, where they had taken that ‘23 Chevy. I gave it my best shot. I tried to say, “Hey, that’s our history. I want that car back in Janesville.” They said they were going to keep it, but that I could have it on loan.
I thought I’d see what a car like that was worth. I went online and found this ‘23 here, which had a bid number on it. I researched bid numbers and found that if they started out with 21, they were made in Janesville. And I said, “I’ll be darned! This car was made in Janesville!”
So, I called and they said that they’d sold it a year ago to a gentleman in Oklahoma. Then, they called me back, saying, “That guy is willing to sell that car.” So that was the start of it.
I went to Bob Clapper from Fagan Chevrolet to see if he could help me with it. I wanted to buy this old car and bring it back to Janesville. Bob knows old cars, and was willing to transport it back. He’s done numerous repairs on it. It takes good people to get things done.
What made you decide to donate it to the Rock County Historical Society?
Well, of course, this Legacy Center wasn’t announced at the time. RCHS had the Samson Tractor, and the truck, and they said, “We’ll take it!” I just thought they should have a piece of history. They thought it was very generous.
Now with this Legacy Center, that’s where the vehicle belongs. And RCHS has a strong connection with Blackhawk Community Credit Union. So everybody’s happy.
Tell me about your connection to GM.
I’m retired from General Motors. I started in 1965 and worked hourly for Fisher Body, hourly for Chevrolet, and I was a 29-year salary. I had an opportunity to work with just about every department, except for a couple.
I worked at the body for half-a-night, and with the production offices. Then I got to cover a front office for the General Superintendent, and sat beside the Production Manager and the Superintendent. I got to know the plant and the people and saw what it takes to run that place. Even the last five years I worked almost a dozen different jobs!
When did you retire?
I retired in 1995 after 30 years in. I was young, and I just thought I had seen everything there was to see. I went out on my own, and as a landlord, I got into farming.
What does this Legacy Center mean to you?
I got into genealogy history of the family. I’m interested in history. I’m retired from Wisconsin National Guard, and they have quite a history. And then I became interested in GM history, and I think that’s why Dona Dutcher asked me to be on the Legacy Center Board of Directors. They knew that I was into the plant’s history.
After they asked me, I told them that they could get someone else if they wanted. But they said, “No, we like you.” So, I said, “Well okay. I’ll do what I can.”
You see the size of the Legacy Center! It’s going to go on for years. You can’t save everything, but what we have is special. When the kids look at the Samson Tractor, when they see the antique car and the truck, these vehicles from 1919 and 1923, they’ll say, “Wow! That’s what they had back then.”
Tell me about the location of the Legacy Center.
The location is interesting, because it’s right across the river, or at least close, to where GM got started. Jim Harris started the Rock River Iron works, in 1869, which became Harris Manufacturing in 1882, and then the Janesville Machine Company. All this happened right across the river from where the Legacy Center will be!
It will also be right down the street from the old high school, which is now JPAC. They wanted a new high school in 1922 because of the GM plant. My dad and friends all went to that high school in the ‘20s. They moved into town and lived with their grandparents so they could go to high school. There was an emphasis on education. That’s what GM wanted.
So, it’s right back home to where it all started. It’s meant to be.
“Now, with this Legacy Center, it really shows their commitment not only to the people at General Motors who started the credit union, but to the community as well.” ~ Tom Brien