Former mill employees recall life without International PaperPublished 12:01am Sunday, August 4, 2013
NATCHEZ — The road from the gates of International Paper’s Natchez mill to the driver’s seat of a school bus was long and winding for Greg West.
Ten years ago, West and 640 other employees lost their jobs when the paper mill, which had been in operation since 1950, closed.
From getting his degree at Alcorn State University to stripping and waxing floors at Walmart, West has juggled a variety of jobs since working at the mill — all of which he said were necessary steps to lead him to where he is today.
“The mill closing was a blessing in disguise,” West said. “I thought it was when they closed, but I know it was now.”
Life after International Paper took similar turns for several other mill employees — all of who say the pla
Blessing in disguise
Two dates will remain engraved in West’s mind until the day he dies — his first day and last day at IP.
“I’ll never forget those days — June 5, 1989, and July 31, 2003,” West said. “They’re like my anniversary date — it’s just something you don’t forget.”
Four years before stepping foot inside the mill for his first day of work, West worked outside the mill cutting the grass.
“I went through the hiring process several times while I was working with the contractors who cut the grass, but never made it through,” he said. “The third time, I finally made it through and got hired to start at the pulp mill.”
For the next 14 years, West worked at the plant and enjoyed the steady, high-paying income he said was a privilege in an area such as Natchez.
“There weren’t many jobs that paid as well as IP did,” he said. “In 14 years, I went from $8 to $18 an hour and that helped do a lot for my family — bought cars, helped us buy our house and put my kids through school.
“In this area, you weren’t going to find a good-paying job like that again.”
But the writing on the wall appeared for West shortly before an official announcement of the mill’s eventual closure was made.
“There were a lot of rumors going around before the announcement and everyone said that at the other IP mills, they would take everyone out for a big retreat kind of deal before everyone got fired,” he said. “Well, they did that for us and sure enough the announcement came shortly after that.”
On his last day at the mill, West and a few other employees hosted a prayer meeting at the flagpole where we told the group he had no regrets about his time with the company or the mill closing.
“A lot of people were upset, but I believe everything happens for a reason,” West said. “I thanked the Lord for blessing us with the mill for the time it was here and prayed that all the employees had a peaceful transition to other jobs or whatever they were doing.”
Not knowing what to do next, West began researching an option the company was offering employees to pay for retraining, which included going back to school.
“I checked with Alcorn and it turned out (IP) would pay for everything, so I signed up to eventually become a P.E. teacher,” he said. “I went to Alcorn for three and a half years, got to the last test I needed and just couldn’t pass it.”
West eventually graduated with a general studies degree in 2007 — four years after the mill closed.
“I wasn’t able to do exactly what I had planned, so I was wondering what the Lord had planned for me next,” he said. “I started doing work with the Boys and Girls club helping them fix up their building until I eventually got offered a job there.
“It turned out to be one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”
During his time at the Boys and Girls Club, West also became certified by Durham School Services to be a bus driver, worked part-time at Walmart in Natchez and even taught as a substitute in the Natchez-Adams School District.
West is even organizing a 10-year reunion, which will be in Oct. 4-6 in Natchez, for all former employees of IP.
While the mill played a significant part in his life for 14 years, West said he’s happier now than when he was working at the mill.
“I’m very fortunate that the mill provided for me financially, but after I was able to focus on more important things like my family,” he said. “There were a lot of challenges to overcome, but I enjoy life a lot more now than when I was working at the mill.”
One big family
Jerry Stowers left a piece of himself in Vietnam after serving there during the war. The 30-year employee of IP also left a piece of himself at the mill on his last day.
“The only difference was that when I left Vietnam, my buddies were still there,” Stowers said. “When we left the mill that last day, there was no one left — everyone was gone.”
The Natchez native and current Vidalia resident returned from his Vietnam tour in March of 1972 and found himself on his first day at the mill a few months later in October.
“It was one of the best jobs you could have in this area at that time,” Stowers said. “There weren’t many jobs that paid as well as IP did.”
Stowers worked in the wood yard during his first four years at the mill. He eventually was transferred to the maintenance department where he and his coworkers fixed “just about every thing at that mill.”
But it’s not the machines or the work he remembers about the mill — it’s the people with whom he worked alongside.
“We spent so much time together, we were like a big family,” he said. “I don’t miss the mill as much as I miss the people I worked with.”
Shortly after the announcement was made that the mill would be closing, Stowers said he and his wife, Vickie, made the decision that he would not accept a job at one of the company’s other mills.
“A lot of their mills needed maintenance people, but we had our mind made up on staying here,” Stowers said. “There was just no way we were going to move.”
Stowers said he began guiding hunting tours on Giles Island and started volunteering more at his local VFW troop, while Vickie’s salary from Natchez Community Hospital supplemented the rest of their income.
“We’ve certainly been blessed,” Stowers said. “I just hope that everyone else has been as blessed as we have since the mill closed.”
Stowers said he worries about the generations of Miss-Lou residents who won’t know a Natchez with a major industrial employer in town.
“The biggest problem in the Miss-Lou is that we don’t have anything for these young people to do and that’s the sad part of it all,” he said. “Natchez has lost a lot and I think about that all the time.”
The IP mill was a family affair for Tony Braley.
Braley’s father worked at the mill for 45 years until his retirement and his son was hired three months before the closure announcement was made.
“Not everyone was fortunate enough to have a job there, so my daddy worked me to death when I got on and I was glad when my son got on,” said Braley, who worked at the mill for 32 years. “Those jobs put food on our tables for a good number of years.”
Braley started off in the labor pool and worked his way up to a maintenance planning analyst.
After the mill closed, Braley stayed in the area for three months — collecting an unemployment check until his retirement began.
“If the time you’d worked there plus your age equaled to 80, you were able to get retirement, and I just made the cutoff,” Braley said. “I stayed in the area for a while and then went down to south Louisiana and worked for a few different companies.
“I eventually came back to Vidalia and applied for a supervisor job at Fruit of the Loom.”
Braley has worked as a maintenance supervisor at Vidalia’s Fruit of the Loom plant for seven years and is hoping to soon retire.
Looking back, Braley said he misses the mill providing jobs for the area, but also said the mill closing was all part of a bigger plan.
“I wish it was still running, but the Lord has a reason for everything and this was all a part of His plan,” Braley said. “I was sad when I left, but I was also excited to see what the Lord had planned for me.
“Some have bitter feelings about the mill closing, but I can’t say anything bad because they were good to my family for about 50 years.”