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Associated Press
Mary Ann Bortone, left, and Janice Cerri gather Wednesday at the Old Country Buffet in Mishawaka with other retirees and former employees of the former Dodge Manufacturing Co. plant.

Dodge plant memories fresh

Former workers still gather in Mishawaka

– When the blizzard of 1978 heaved its overwhelming snow onto the streets, Gene Lee couldn’t make it home from his job at Dodge Manufacturing Co. for a week, even though he lived just a block and a half away.

He slept – though not much – on a couch in a women’s restroom. He and the other employees marooned at Dodge “ate everything” in the plant’s full-service cafeteria, big enough to serve the 2,000 employees who once worked there.

The Dodge campus sprawled so much that Monday’s massive fire on Union Street nibbled off and destroyed just a piece.

Lee and a few dozen other retirees and former workers gathered Wednesday to eat and catch up as they do each quarter at the Old Country Buffet. Their beloved old workplace was gone even before the fire, sold to Reliance Mechanical Group (or RMG) in 2000, then closed in 2006.

But stories remain.

Lee worked through the blizzard. A week later, his wife, who was at home with their three kids, needed formula for their baby. Lee resorted to using a dump truck, loaded with snow, to drive to a drugstore to buy two cans of formula, then dropped it off home, shoveled snow and returned to work in maintenance.

If you grew up in this city, it was hard not to know someone who worked there.

“You either worked for Dodge, Wheelabrator, Bendix or Ball Band,” Pete Hallam recalled of Mishawaka’s old days.

He clocked into Dodge after he graduated from high school in 1964 and put in 29 years.

Monday’s fire was a spectacle, he told the South Bend Tribune, recalling: “Same kind of feeling when they imploded Uniroyal. Kind of neat to see, then you think, ‘Gee, all the lives.’ ”

Generations worked there – uncles, cousins, sons – and not many of them left before their careers were over. A lot of people walked from their nearby homes.

Mary Ann Bortone performed in plays – “South Pacific” and “The Nutcracker” – that Dodge held.

She worked in offices there for 30 years, and her late husband put in 40 years in management.

A club for women employees would go to plays and picnics.

Men on the night shift would gather for “night man parties” that started right after their shift at 12:30 a.m. in a club room on the Dodge campus, replete with a kitchen and pool hall, where they’d play cards, shoot pool and dine on a big spread until 4 or 5 a.m.

The Dodge Athletic Association used revenue from its vending machines to run fishing tournaments, softball teams and golf leagues.

They’d take bus trips to Chicago for baseball games.

“I miss it; I haven’t found a job like it,” said Janice Cerri, who worked 31 years there and recalls how the company would even pay employees for time they would spend at a dentist.

Johnnie Woods, who’d moved up from Alabama, landed a job there in 1951, then served almost two years with the Army in Europe. But he had no trouble getting his job back. The company kept his seniority.

In 42 years of work, he was laid off just once – for a month and a half – and his income supported his wife and four kids.

Dick LaDow, 90, has been calling this group together for about 16 years. A similar group for Dodge’s women workers met Tuesday for its monthly gathering.

“Everybody was friends,” LaDow said. “We didn’t have backstabbing like you do today.”

Jack Biermann worked for 25 years in the building that burned. He said it was used for working with metal – not to be confused with Dodge’s original foundry.

When Lee first heard of Monday’s fire, he didn’t want to look.

“Old memories,” he explained. “I didn’t want to see it go up in flames.”

Then he drove his wife over Tuesday to point out the different parts and what he’d done there.

For others, the fire didn’t hurt. This chapter was closed years ago.

“It has been a long time since Dodge was there,” said Dave Hintz, who came with his father, Rolland Hintz, who also worked at Dodge. “Kind of goes by the wayside. Time moves on.”

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