STEVE BOUSER: My Personal Version of Lake Wobegon Days
Last week, I mentioned my first job out of college, in Janesville, Wis. By coincidence, Janesville has been in the news in recent weeks -- for sad reasons.
That once-thriving burg lies nestled along the banks of the Rock River in extreme southern Wisconsin, not far from Beloit and the Illinois line. My stint there, as wire editor of The Janesville Gazette, was the only extended time I've ever spent in the North -- unless you count a month based at Fort Dix, N.J., or a subsequent six months at Fort Meade, Md.
This insular little city of 50,000 souls, almost all of German and Swedish extraction, was a place where people sounded like characters from a Lake Wobegon skit or the movie "Fargo." They said "yah" instead of "yeah," called water fountains "bubblers," and loved lutefisk, a (to me) horrid traditional Nordic dish made of dried whitefish processed with caustic lye.
The orderly, law-abiding denizens of Janesville mowed their lawns twice, once at 90 degrees and again at 45. The population of 50,000 included, to my knowledge, not a single black person. When a new newspaper colleague, Steve Mitchell, moved to town, he and his wife were puzzled that they kept striking out when calling about apartments advertised in the classifieds. Then somebody explained: They were from the South, so they sounded to those Yankee ears as if they might be African American.
But here's the point: The major employer in Janesville was a sprawling plant operated by GMAD (General Motors Assembly Division). In that era in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it employed thousands of UAW members who cranked out a steady stream of shoddy, gas-guzzling Chevrolets. Some families we knew included three generations of GMAD workers, and the assumption was that those high-paying union jobs would always be there.
Alas, they were not to be.
The world changed course, and General Motors failed to keep up with it. And a while back, six months after ending sport-utility vehicle production there, what's left of GM dashed Janesville's remaining hopes when it announced that it was awarding production of a new line of small cars to a competing plant in Orion, Mich. It amounted to a death blow for the Wisconsin plant, which will be mothballed.
I wrote several years ago about my primary memory of that GM plant, which involved a strike that took place in 1967, just after I went to work at the paper as a recent college grad.
Nobody had bothered to tell me during the job interview that a walkout by The Gazette's International Typographical Union members was looming -- or that once all those ITU workers had gone clumping down those wooden stairs and out onto the street, we newsroom employees would be expected to double up and perform composing-room functions in addition to our own.
That made us strikebreakers. We had to cross a noisy picket line every day on our way to and from the office. And when the GM plant shut down for a month during its annual model changeover, hundreds of idle auto workers came down to reinforce the picketers. I can still remember those burly UAW guys yelling "Scab!" in my ear as I crossed the sidewalk. At one point, things got so hairy that they considered helicoptering us onto the roof.
The second-largest employer in Janesville during our four years there was the Parker Pen plant, which had formerly manufactured the top-of-the-line fountain pens that my father had always prized when I was a child -- the kind with the gracefully crafted body (his was always in a tortoiseshell pattern) and the arrow-shaped gold pocket clasp.
Even then, in the late '60s, the Parker plant's fortunes were changing as everybody went over to cheap ballpoints. And just last month, I happened to notice a news item on the Web: The former Parker plant -- now run by the Sanford Corp., a subsidiary of Newell Rubbermaid in Atlanta -- was about to shut down, eliminating 153 jobs.
I have never set foot back in Janesville, Wis., since the day I left there in 1971 to head back south, so I don't know how the town is doing. But I suspect it is fast becoming just another lost, hollowed-out, depressed poster child for a Rust Belt bypassed by monumental social and economic changes far beyond its control.
Sad, all right.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at 693-2470 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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