Janesville18.1°

Last look at the line

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Catherine W. Idzerda
November 11, 2008
— In a few weeks, the light boards will go dark.

The neon sign reading "Medical Dept." will be switched off.


The clanking conveyor belts, humming overhead lines, puffing hydraulic tools, spinning robot arms and musical alarms will be shut down.


The GM assembly plant will fall silent for the first time in nearly 100 years.


On Monday, local residents took the opportunity to see the plant in action before the end. Even though the plant won't officially end production until Dec. 23, public tours are only available from 12:45 to 3 p.m. today. Wednesday has been set aside for GM retirees and inactive employees, and Thursday will be an employee appreciation day.


For some visitors Monday, it was a look at their own history.


For others, it was the first time inside the plant that dominated their hometown for years.


"We had about 500 people come through this morning," said Mary Fanning-Penny, plant spokesperson.


Art and Marian Briggs were on the first tour of the afternoon. Art worked at the plant for almost 39 years, retiring in the mid-'80s.


"Everything looks so different," Art marveled.


Art and Marian are GM folks through and through. They remember buying their first new caróa cream-colored 1959 Chevy station wagon with green trim. That was followed by a 1966 Chevy, a 1972 Caprice, a 1978 Suburban and a 1990 Suburban.


It was a good life, but employees had to work hardóboth on the line and at the negotiating table.


"These were good jobs with good benefits," Art said. "We had to fight for everything we got."


Terry and Barb Peterson took their daughter Emma on the tour to "see what her grandpas did," Terry said. Emma even was allowed to take time off from kindergarten for the excursion.


Terry remembered his father, Darrel Peterson, coming home with scorch marks and holes in his coveralls from the giant welding torches. Barb remembered how hard her father and the men of his generation worked.


Her father, Bernie Taylor, worked as a sander and painter in the days before the modern paint shop.


Al Lembrich wanted to get a last look at the plant, too.


Lembrich worked at GM in the mid-1950s before becoming a Janesville police officer. His children also have worked at the plant.


Even now, more than a half a century later, Lembrich remembers how heavy the quarter panels were on those 1957 Chevys.


For Linda Kamla, a retired Janesville teacher, Monday was her first plant tour, even though she's lived here for much of her life.


Her husband, Dwane Kamla, a retired teacher and principal, remembers bringing his sixth-grade students through the plant.


The plant's products and production have changed drastically since his days as a teacher, but a few things have stayed the same.


"We used to be able to walk through the plant," Dwane remembered. "We can't do that any more. But it's still as neat as it was then, and it's as noisy as it was then."


Sheila Schumacher, whose husband, Bryon, works at the plant, was so impressed she wanted to take the tour again.


Her husband has 28 years in, but they're still trying to take in all of the changes.


"It hit me hardest going through the tour," Schumacher said. "It really is sad; I really feel for these people."



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