After 46 years of mostly hard labor, my mom is finally going to retire in September.
I am elated. I almost feel like I’m retiring. I get to live vicariously through my mom’s experience and I am going to relish in it since I likely will never be able to retire.
Things were different when my parents were growing up and entering the job market. Jobs were plentiful at Caterpillar and Hiram Walkers.
And guess what? Those are the places where my parents worked.
My mom, Connie, started working at Hiram Walker’s as a waitress in the cafeteria at the age of 17. Both of her parents worked at Walker’s too, so she followed in their footsteps.
When my mom turned 19, she worked on the bottling line.
At this time, she was already married and expecting me.
My mom and dad divorced in the early 70s. My dad dutifully paid child support and mom worked second shift, so we were taken to the baby-sitter’s, which I loathed. I couldn’t wait until mom picked us up.
Around this same time, mom began working a “man’s” job and worked them for the rest of her life.
I don’t know what possessed her to want to do hard labor. I guess I should add at this point that my mom is a tomboy and a cowgirl — the exact opposite of me. She cusses like a sailor, has five horses, wears jeans and no makeup. She rode a motorcycle when she was a teen and played pool with guys in the 70s.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised she worked a “man’s” job.
When I asked her recently why she chose this path, she said, “Money. I had two children to raise.”
At Hiram Walker’s, mom worked in the rack houses, rolling 500-pound barrels full of whiskey to trucks where she and another person would load them.
After 14 years at Walker’s, the plant closed and mom lost her job.
She was desperate in trying to find a job. She worked as a cook’s helper at a small restaurant in Sunnyland and trained to be a manager for one whole day at the Peoria Drive-In in Peoria before the screen blew down, closing the business.
In 1983, she got on at Pekin Energy where she started a dirty, hard job as an ash puller, pulling ashes out of boilers.
“Half the day you shovel coal, then you pull coal ash and wash coal off the floor,” she said. “Every time you turned around, you’re shoveling or cleaning something.”
When she was on day shift, she would come home, tired and dirty, and take my brother and me out to eat often. I remember how excited I was when mom pulled into the drive and honked the horn, announcing her arrival. My brother and I shot out the door in a hurry, still trying to put our shoes and coats on.
Page 2 of 2 - In addition to working in what Mike Rowe would definitely consider a “dirty job,” another challenge mom faced was a not so friendly environment where things were not so politically correct in the 70s and 80s.
She said it was intimidating, and I heard the stories of the harassment she endured. But, she stuck with it.
“It got a little bit better than it used to be,” she said.
Mom stayed at Pekin Energy, which became Williams Bio Energy and is now Aventine Renewable Energy.
She moved from ash puller, to water operator, powerhouse assistant, and then boiler house assistant, before graduating to her current rank as powerhouse operator.
I’m proud of my mom and I’m very happy for her. I also think it’s neat that she’s like a Rosie the Riveter or a Norma Rae.
I’m also happy for selfish reasons. Over the years, my mom’s work hours have not been 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, like the world I mostly live in. She worked six days in a row for many years and worked a lot of double 16-hour shifts, most weekends and holidays.
Finally, when she retires she will have the luxury of time.
She will have more time to spend with my stepdad, Mike, who recently had a heart attack, time to take better care of her home and herself through exercise. She said she is also looking forward to time with her family and pets and playing “World of Warcraft.” She also likes to make a trip or two during the week to the Par-A-Dice Casino.
She will also have time to spend with me on the weekends. It will be both strange and lovely to call her on a Saturday afternoon and ask her to lunch. Heck, I will even buy. Of course, one little lunch is not reward enough for all of those years of dedication at work. But, spending time together is priceless.
— Jeanette Kendall is editor of the East Peoria Times-Courier and executive editor of TimesNewspapers.