One of my fondest memories of elementary school was the day when my dad came to teach my class about how paper is made. He brought a sludgy jar of pulp to show what paper is made of and a piece of corrugated cardboard to show us the finished product. I was so proud of my father, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I actually took a tour of the mill. I watched in fascination as the massive rolls of kraft paper came off the machine, and I loved the process as much as I had when I was a child. To me, the mill was a place of magic where chemists used science to turn trees into cardboard boxes and seeing it firsthand gave me a new appreciation of what my father did for a living. When my dad started working in the paper industry, it was a more lucrative business than it is now. Paper bags were in every grocery store – you didn’t have to ask for them, and you could tell which company made them by the logo on the bottom. I can’t remember even seeing one of those awful plastic grocery bags until I was at least in my middle teens, if then. To this day, if given a choice, I use paper bags at the grocery store (and promptly recycle them when I’m finished with them).
Dad began his career in 1970 in Hopewell, Virginia. The mill was originally owned by Continental Can, which eventually morphed into Continental Forest Industries, Stone Container, Smurffit-Stone and now, RockTenn. With that many transitions, of course, my dad’s job was threatened more than once. My mother told me that when our family was moving into our first home, they found out that the company was sold on the day of the move. To say they were concerned my dad would lose his job would be an understatement. Good fortune favored him, though, and this past December, he retired after 42 years of service. In that time, my dad provided for our family, helped me through three years of science fair projects in his lab, gave my sister and me college educations and weddings, and was blessed enough to have a job he enjoyed. When he came home smelling of pulp and chemicals, my sister and I would hold our noses, and he would tell us that it was the smell of money that came in the door with him. He was a process engineer at first but over time, he became heavily involved with the environmental side of the process . Any time there was a shutdown, union strike, or an accident (one gruesome one involved a guy who drowned in a vat of chemicals), my father was there. Because a paper mill runs on a 24/7 schedule, things can go wrong at any time. My mother probably can’t even count the number of late night phone calls Dad received over the years summoning him to the mill in the middle of the night. Paper mills don’t stop for the holidays, either – every fourth year my dad had to work a half day on Christmas Day and was on call for the rest of the holiday; when my sister and I were older, he would often volunteer to work on Christmas so the guys with young kids could be home with their families. This past Christmas Day, he went in at 5:30 a.m. one last time. When he came in around 11:00 a.m., my husband asked him what itfelt like to be retired. Dad said that he still felt like he was on vacation, and probably would until he went to clean out his office. He did so on January 2nd. His friends were there to see him off with a cake and the trading of war stories; many of them joked that they didn’t know he had a desk because they hadn’t seen the top of it in years. Last night they had a party for him and I’m sure it was a wistful time for everyone; it’s also a new chapter in Dad’s life, one that he and my mother definitely deserve. Thank you, Daddy, for all the hard work you put into providing for us all these years. Bill and I are so proud of and happy for you!