Gibson, where's the heart?
Sacked veterans received no cards

Friday, July 31, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Boaters frolic on the Ohio River near the mouth of the Licking River on Sunday.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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For a greeting-card company, Gibson Greetings sure has trouble saying thanks and goodbye.

For at least eight workers approaching their last day on the job, the cold, impersonal way the card company is closing its Amberley Village plant sticks in the craw.

Representing a combined experience of 226 1/2 years of working at Gibson, the eight employees sat down Thursday for one last work-day lunch at the Silverton Cafe.

When they walk out of the plant today, the eight members of the platemaking department will leave it forever. They will be joined by about 250 other employees as Gibson continues a protracted factory shutdown announced in March. By year's end, the plant's closing will put 480 people out of work.

"They're letting us go without so much as a "Thank You,' a "We're Sorry' or a "Good Luck and Goodbye,' " fumed Durward Farmer, a Gibson veteran with 34 1/2 years' experience.

Instead of a thank-you note, said 34-year veteran Jerry Schrage, "we're getting a message that basically says: "Get lost. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.' "

Today's the last day these workers will show up at the platemaking department. They worked together there for years, many for decades, men and women, black and white, newcomers and old-timers, side by side.

"We all got along," said Kim McCollough. In the 17 years she worked at Gibson, "nobody ever hassled anyone else."

Over time, the co-workers became friends. And more.

"They are my family," Bertha Davis said, her hand sweeping around the table. For 34 years, she's worked with people who did more than make birthday cards.

"We talked about our dogs and our husbands and our lives," she said. "We cared for each other."

And, to hear them tell it, they cared about their jobs. In any printing business, the platemaking department needs to do flawless work. If the photographic plates are perfect, then whatever's printed from them, sympathy cards, gift wrap, Christmas greetings, etc., looks perfect.

"We worked hard to make sure everything was right," said Olivia Williams, a 30-year veteran. "We never left anything for anyone else to do."

Debbie Maxey had the least amount of experience of anyone at the table. She's worked at Gibson for only nine years. But she spoke for the group when she said:

"It may sound corny to say this in the '90s. But we took pride in our work."

Now, the work is gone. There are no more plates to make, no more cards to print. Gibson is closing the plant to cut costs.

The platemakers occupy themselves by reading newspapers and magazines. They count the hours. They watch the clock -- even at lunch. On their last full day together, after all that has happened to them and how they have been treated, the members of the platemaking department did not want to come back late from lunch.

As they wait for the end, these Gibson employees find themselves feeling increasingly uneasy.

"I don't have a clue what I'm going to do after Friday," said Bertha Davis. "I have to dip into my savings until I can get Social Security."

"We all made plans for retirement," Durward Farmer noted. "I'm 61. And planned to work a few more years. But now those plans are shot to hell."

Jerry Schrage tried to get a job cleaning his house. But his wife has already told him her standards are too high. He should look elsewhere. "But I'm too old to get another job," Jerry moaned. "I guess all I'm cut out for is sitting on a boat and drinking beer."

David Partch has been reading the want ads. The 35-year veteran noticed an opening for strippers and wondered whether he could get together a group of out-of-work greeting-card workers for a Gibson-style version of The Full Monty.

"The ad said "no experience necessary.' And it didn't say anything about sex," he added. "So we could have male and female strippers."

Marguerite Gibson looked at David and held her nose at his idea. The table's occupants laughed. Marguerite has worked at Gibson for 33 years. She's quick to add that she's not related to the company's founders.

"If I were," she said, "everybody here would still have a job."

Her comments filled the cafe's corner table with another round of laughter. "The mood's been like this all week," Debbie Maxey said. "It's cheerful. But a forced cheerful."

The cheerfulness ends today. When the platemakers leave the plant for the last time, they plan to wear black armbands, put black streamers on their cars, turn on their headlights and drive out of the parking lot as if they were in a funeral procession.

They're treating this moment with the respect it deserves. A plant closing is more than dismissing workers and shutting doors. It's a death in the family.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.