190512_CONWAY_DICK

Kristi Powers’ father, Dick Conway, viewed a job at the Janesville GM plant as a way to provide for his family. He was initially turned away, but he kept returning to the plant until he was hired.

Last Saturday, I found myself among the miles and miles of cars waiting. The cars stretched back as a far as the eye could see, and the wait was up to four hours.

We were not waiting to see someone famous.

We were not waiting to shake the hand of a politician or attend a rock concert.

No, each of us waited in line for two bricks that were left over from the demolition of the General Motors plant.

In some ways, it seems silly to wait so long for two old bricks. I learned early in life that unlike people, things do not have eternal life. “Things” are not to be coveted, hoarded or claimed like Gollum does “my precious” in “The Lord of the Rings.” But to those of us sitting in line, idling our cars for hours, those bricks had very different meanings behind them. As The Gazette headline rightly stated last Sunday, “Each car had a story.”

In 1919, the General Motors plant was built in our hometown. In 2009, it closed its doors forever. But just as buildings don’t usually make a place memorable, the people who worked there and their families were what made this place special.

I worked there from 1986 to 1995. When I gave birth to my first child, I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. We were working 50-plus hours a week, and I knew there was no way I wanted to be away from precious baby for that length of time. Although a hard decision, walking away from General Motors is not one I have ever regretted.

What I miss most, though, are the people. I learned a lot working at the plant, and I could write many stories from my time there. As I sat in that line last Saturday, it was my father I thought of the most.

The year was 1965, and Dick Conway was a father to three children with another one (me) on the way. That was a lot of responsibility for a 22-year-old. Times were different then. My father married my mother when he was 17, and he never graduated from high school. My parents found themselves, as people would say back then, “having to get married.” For my parents, who were deeply in love, there was no “having.”

When I think of my father taking on so much responsibility at the age of 22, it makes me think of the average 22-year-old today. I don’t remember ever hearing my dad complain that he had to work for a living. I don’t remember ever seeing him shirk any responsibility he had to his children and wife. There are not many 22-year-olds I know today that would marry so young and take on the things my father did.

With four kids to provide for, he needed a job to support his family. The job he held at a butcher shop was not going to sustain a family of six, and so he did what he thought was right at the time. He got up early, put on his best dress shirt, his trademark black pants with shoes to match and drove up to General Motors to apply for a job. What none of us kids knew while we were growing up and only learned in the last five years of our dad’s life, was that he did not know how to read or write very well. I don’t know how he filled out an application that day. Maybe he didn’t even get the chance to fill one out because he was told there were no job openings at the plant.

Here, though, is where my father’s story becomes one for the record books. He knew that working at General Motors would be his best option to provide for his growing family. So he did what few are humble enough to do. Every single morning, my dad got up early, drove to the plant and asked if they needed to hire any help that day. Day after day, he was told they were not hiring. He would smile and thank them for their time.

They finally got so tired of looking at my dad every morning that they hired him. Anyone who was that persistent and committed to working there was worth hiring, even if there were no openings.

Many people look to sport stars, musicians or Hollywood for their heroes. I only had to look across the table. On a daily basis, my dad showed us four kids what perseverance truly looked like. When tough times came, he didn’t leave my mother or us four kids because he was “too young to be tied down.” My father took what life handed him and did his best with it.

My dad is not alive today for me to give him one of these bricks. In all honesty, I wasn’t even going to go get one until I heard about a young man I know who’s always been in awe of the GM plant but couldn’t be in town to get a brick. As I sat in line for almost two hours, I found myself getting emotional at the outpouring of people wanting to have a piece of the rich heritage from our GM plant.

Ironically, the two bricks were placed in my hands 100 years after the plant was built. To many people, they are just bricks and nothing to get worked up about. Just something composed of clay, soil, sand or concrete materials. But behind each of these bricks there’s a story, a story of thousands of lives that worked there over the years.

The bricks are the foundation that was built in our lives and in our homes. The bricks tell the story of layoffs, strikes, hiring, retirements and so much more.

While the plant is no more and has become rubble at our feet, the legacy it leaves will always be with us. It is inside us, it is what drives us, and it is what has made us who we are today. So when you look at those building blocks, remember, they are so much more than bricks.

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A former General Motors employee, Krisiti Powers has written stories for several inspirational books, including “Chicken Soup for the Christian Teenage Soul.” She lives in Janesville.

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