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2001: Firestone shuts doors

From the 20/20: 20 of the best stories from our last 20 years series

Company's 38 years of production in Decatur ends with smiles, sadness

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DECATUR - They wrote their names with silver ink on warm black rubber.

"Pickle" Standerfer. Ed "Fast Eddie" Maurer. Cindy Smith for Dad "Smitty."

Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc. employees signed the Decatur plant's last tire Friday in a private final ceremony, just as the plant left its mark on local history.

The plant produced about 232,633,400 tires since 1963, when the company bought the massive building from the government. The last tire came off the building machine about 10:30 a.m. Friday. While workers and families deal with the loss of a job, Decatur must face the loss of one of its largest job bases.

Senior tire builder Wayne Miller made the last two tires, watched by 100 or more employees and local managers.

"I made them just the way I always did, like they were for me," Miller said.

Plant managers and union officials made their remarks and said their good-byes. Senior Process Engineer Roger L. Harting's voice cracked as he read a poem he wrote about the old building.

Long-standing fault lines that separated workers were still visible. Union veterans gathered at the United Steelworkers of America Local 713 hall on Woodford Street; younger workers hired after the contentious strike of 1995 gathered mostly at local bars. The mood appeared light and spunky, but cracks showed in the upbeat facade. Shock, stress and sadness were evident and acknowledged.

"It's just a tough day," Harting said later. "We've had differences, but in the end we're all really friends. It's a tough job to close a plant like that."

The two-year controversy over the plant's production of some tires involved in fatal tread separation accidents was mentioned only in passing, usually with a note of bitter disbelief and firm conviction that Decatur was a scapegoat.

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END OF THE LINE: USWA Local 713 President Roger Gates walks through the darkened union hall decorated for a Chrsitmas Party Friday with the last Bridgestone/Firestone tire produced at the Decatur plant.

The company says a small maintenance crew will remain in the plant for the near future. The 2 million-square-foot building had been a wartime factory for tank engines and later a warehouse for military radio equipment. Its next incarnation is still unknown.

Following is an account of the last day for a Decatur institution:

* 6 a.m. - Fat snowflakes fall from the night sky while workers arrive for breakfast at places like Kenny & Kim's Diner, 1404 N. 22nd St.

Jim Dick orders a familiar special from the menu. He has no concrete plans other than to seek a part-time job while drawing about $1,500-per-month pension. He shares a table with fellow worker Shannon McIver, 31, of Shelbyville.

McIver, a non-union worker hired around the time of the contentious strike of 1995, has less than six years experience.

"I've really come to appreciate the union for what they do for people. I didn't really when I started," McIver acknowledges.

McIver has applied to Richland Community College. She plans to study to be a teacher. Her husband has been staying at home with their children.

As she pays her check, McIver proudly says she will attend her daughter's evening kindergarten program because her shift is ending early.

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RETIREMENT GIFT: James Dick, a 31 year veteran of Bridgestone/Firestone, displays the medallion the workers were given Friday morning as they left the plant for the last time.

* 7 a.m. - The last night shift departs. Ten workers head for the Sundown Lounge, just north of the plant, for beer or coffee.

Michelle Booker, 34, a six-year worker in the curing room, said the crew spent their last 12-hour shift watching movies like "Pearl Harbor" on DVD. She's already planning to study at Richland to become a paralegal.

"I was so excited. I felt like a kid again," she says of registering for classes. But she faces lean times living on her own in a small apartment, seeking part-time work.

Going around the table, most of Booker's co-workers have about the same length of service. They express some worries but are largely focused on the future.

Aaron Anselm, 41, of Taylorville has applied for a job at Caterpillar Inc. to support his wife and four children. Tony Campbell, 28, of Harristown plans to finish a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Joe Haas, 35, of Findlay has already landed a job at a new gas energy plant in Beecher City.

* 10 a.m. - The ceremony starts inside the plant. The press is kept out in the interests of privacy and protecting trade secrets, Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina says.

John McQuade, vice president of operations from the company's Tennessee headquarters, said he did not attend out of respect for the autonomy and tradition at the plant.

Retirees who frequent the union hall brag about the local labor force while they wait to see the last tire.

Roger Gates, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 713, summed up his comments in an interview afterward. He praised his membership as a highly versatile, hard-working crew. Decatur workers helped pioneer radial tires, the Firehawk tire and light truck tires.

"I wished everybody good luck," Gates said. "We regret the circumstances, but there's little or nothing we can do. We think the corporation will regret this plant closure in the future, because they'll realize what we did for them."

* 12:20 p.m. - One of the last tires arrives at the union hall with Gates and Miller.

The remaining union personnel gather round, read the signatures and add their own.

"I guess it hasn't really sunk in yet," Dick says, as he ponders the ceremony and plant closure.

He proudly displays the pewter medal he received from the company, embossed with the words "Firehawk" and " Firestone Plant, Decatur, Illinois, 1963-2001."

Charles Annis, who retired in May with 33 years, wanted to attend the ceremony but was turned back by a security guard. He said his most vivid memories are from the strike of 1995.

All around are vestiges of the local's legacy. Someone wrote with a stick in the concrete steps outside: "War of '94-'95."

The infamous wall of shame bearing the names of picket-line crossers hangs in the meeting room, now decorated with Christmas garland.

On a lobby wall, the incorporation papers declare the local's birth into the United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum and Plastic Workers union on Sept. 5, 1967. In front of the certificate stands a brochure rack for advice "About Changing Your Job."

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LOOKING TO SURVIVE: Larry Goetz, MVP Sports Bar & Grill owner, discusses the future of his establishment Friday after the very last shift of Firestone workers left the plant across the street. Goetz, who's main base of customers are the plant workers, hopes he can still make a go of his business in the future. 12.14.01

* 2 p.m. - Larry Goetz, owner of MVP's sports bar across the street from the plant, serves a few of the departing workers from the day crew. He's been visited by reporters from national media outlets during the tread separation controversy and recently because of the plant closure.

"I told them all this whole town will be affected, not just me," Goetz said. He's seen a dramatic slowdown in business since layoffs began last year.

* 5 p.m. - The Steelworkers Organization for Active Retirees planned to gather for its annual Christmas party. According to union officials, the hall will remain open for several months until the district office decides its fate.

Originally published December 15, 2001

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