The Worker

Posted: July 9, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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My mom Cees Fury started working at the E.F. Johnson company in Waseca, Minnesota, in January 1969. That same month she turned 19 years old. A month earlier, a week before Christmas, she had given birth to my sister Lisa. For the next 44 years she worked at E.F. Johnson and two other manufacturing plants, save for the one year she lived in Germany when my dad was stationed there in the army.

She served as a shipping clerk and as a machine operator, but for nearly 40 years she worked in quality control, inspecting and signing off on products — or rejecting them. She worked in a plating room and with radios and accessories. There were years spent on something called surface mount technology and then responsibilities for incoming material and components. In later years she inspected electronic testing equipment and all finished product. Each morning she woke up around 6:30 in the morning although that was often 6 a.m. or even 5, depending on mandatory overtime requirements at the plant. She worked eight, nine, 12 hours. For nearly 35 years she worked in Waseca, 10 miles away from Janesville, and for about 20 years she worked with my dad at E.F. Johnson. Five days a week for 44 years, with a few weeks of vacation sprinkled in each year.

She’s making the same 10-minute drive today. But today she’s also retiring.


Mom would have loved being a teacher. We used to talk about it over the years. As time went by she’d brush it aside and say, “Oh, I’m too old to go back to school now.” A classroom would have been lucky to have her. Curious, patient, great with children, a lover of books, and smart, the go-to source for homework help for kids and grandkids. In reality, her only experience in front of students came when she taught religious education at nights for a few years to often-unruly 8th-graders, though with my mom in charge even the rowdiest groups — the ones teachers hear about when they’re in fourth-grade and everyone knows they’ll be terrors until they graduate, whether in a public or parochial setting — were somewhat tamed.

I wish mom had become a teacher, though it’s probably something I regret more than she does. The woman doesn’t have a bitter bone in her body, not even the ones in her aching feet, damaged by spending decades standing at work. I spent two summers working at E.F. Johnson and I certainly didn’t enjoy the assembly line but it was regular hours and good money for three months. And as mom said when I’d complain about a surly middle-aged woman who served as a cold-hearted dictator along the assembly line or when I whined about the mind-numbing monotony of putting one part into another time after time for eight hours, “At least you know what you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.”

Working at two-way radio manufacturers and manufacturing plants wasn’t what she wanted to do for the rest of her life but it’s just what she did for the majority of it.

E.F. Johnson was a good place for a young mother to work when she started there in 1969, at least according to this 2003 story on the company’s history. Edgar Johnson started the company in Waseca in 1923. Over its history, the company created amateur transmitters, CBs and numerous other radio technologies. At one point in time the company employed more than 1,000 people in Waseca. Mom first worked in shipping, handling all the government contract orders. But in November 1970, after being apart from my dad for several months after he was sent overseas in the army, mom left E.F. Johnson and the country, taking Lisa to be with my dad in Germany. When they returned in 1971, mom was pregnant. In October, their baby girl died. Mom nearly died in the hospital, too.

She was back at E.F. Johnson a month later.

And there she stayed for the next 29 years. I came along in 1975 and until dad left for Itron in Waseca in 1992 (he retired in 2007), we were an E.F. Johnson family. A one-car family, my folks drove to work together every morning and rode back every afternoon. Mom worked in various roles, nearly all of them in the QA department. People in quality assurance don’t always have the most enviable roles, not when they point out flaws in million-dollar projects. But it was a good role for my mom and her easygoing nature; scientists are still scouring the globe for a single person who has negative things to say about her. I get a lot of things from my mom, including having no real desire to ever be a boss. We do our work, try to do it well, but don’t really want to be in charge of a group of people. Yet over the decades mom became one of the little people the big people come to for answers. The bosses depended on her to know things they didn’t. An engineer making a hundred grand has a question about a part or a procedure? Go ask Cees.

Growing up I didn’t really know what my parents did at work. I had a rough idea but as a kid more important worries took center stage. Bad bosses, incompetent co-workers, changes to health insurance or pension plans, raises that don’t come or aren’t very big, confusing job responsibilities — kids don’t think about those things. I didn’t think about sacrifices or what their dreams might have been as 20-year-olds. It bothered my mom that she couldn’t be at home, especially during the summer, but it hardly concerned me — not when I had the run of the house and spent those months playing basketball, football, baseball and tennis for 10 hours a day in our small town. I didn’t necessarily know what my parents had to give up working the hours they did, but I was always grateful that their jobs allowed them to attend all my sporting and school events. And by all I mean all. As a kid it’s hard to appreciate what your parents do or how tough they might have it, not when they’re able to hide things like that and make everything seem easy, even when it’s not. Sometimes appreciation only arrives as an adult, when you’re out in the real world and perhaps stumble upon old pay stubs and tax returns and think, “They lived on this? Raised a family?”

For years mom probably thought she’d be retiring from E.F. Johnson, but nothing’s guaranteed in manufacturing, not anymore. In November 2000 she was let go in a company-wide downsizing, the laid-off employees — those who had been there a short time and those who were a few months from their 30th anniversary — out the door by noon, their belongings in boxes. The moves signaled what was to come. E.F. Johnson, a company started in Waseca by a Wasecan, which had once employed more than 1,000 people in town, is now headquartered in Texas. There are no Johnson employees left in the old Waseca building on Johnson Avenue, named after the founder.

Mom landed at SPX in Owatonna, a move that meant more driving and less pay. Still, she acclimated, settled in and did her job — until getting downsized in 2009. With retirement on the horizon but not yet attainable, she found a position at Itron, dad’s old company, which makes systems for electronic meter readers. She survived layoffs that hit the company. Now, four years later, the end has come — on her terms.

I’ve wanted her to get out of manufacturing plants and factories for a few years, wanted her to be able to sleep in, selfishly wanted her not to have to go into work during our trips back to Minnesota. Mostly I wanted her out simply so she could actually be retired. Because no one will enjoy retirement like my mom.

It’s not just that she’s going to travel — east to see us, two hours to see her grandkids, a train to the Western U.S., treks to historical Civil War sites, and, who knows, perhaps, if prices are reasonable and she can talk or bribe my dad into going too, even a trip to Cape Town with us to see the in-laws — although that is a major reason I wanted her retired. But when she’s not enjoying her travels, mom will enjoy doing…nothing. She’s not going to get bored or feel like her life lacks purpose because she’s not working eight or nine hours. She can finally wake up when she wants to. She can read murder mysteries all day. She can go out to lunch with dad. She can take midweek wine-tasting trips with her sisters. She can work on her projects, those genealogy and family picture projects that account for 87 percent of the objects in their basement’s storage room.

I wish she had been able to do those things — and do nothing — a few years ago. But in the same way I didn’t always totally understand things as a kid, the same is true even today. Retirees, and those who want to earn that designation, worry about nest eggs and 401ks, Social Security, COBRA, secondary insurance, nursing home insurance, downsizing their home, Medicare. It can’t simply be about retiring when they’re tired of working, or when their kids want them to finally take a break. Now the time is finally right.

Mom will miss many of the people she worked with, but not the work. It’ll be strange knowing she’s not going to be at work each day until 4. Forty-four years on the job, starting as a teen mom and ending as a grandma. When I think of mom at work I’ll think about her early mornings, dedication, arranging her schedule around our activities, those damn smoke breaks, pride in doing a good job even if she didn’t always love the job, and the two summers I spent working with her. I’ll think about her ability to recover from getting laid off. I’ll think about the kindness she showed troubled or sick co-workers and the hours she spent on the phone with them long after the workday had ended. I’ll think about all the sacrifices she made day after day, year after year in giving her family the best possible life.

Mom wanted to be a teacher. And she was.

  1. Pat fury says:

    Once again you have brought me to tears. Great tribute to a great and lovely person! Dad

  2. Patrick Manley says:

    Wonderful writing. Reminds me so much of my mother.

  3. Mary Jean Puterbaugh says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful woman! We take so much for granted in this life….until it is put into words. Thank you for describing Cees in a way I have always wanted to, but could never find. Well done!

  4. This story makes me glad that we have this blog.
    My folks are on the brink of retirement, too. Blows my mind – they don’t seem old enough yet they’ve worked hard and weathered changes for a long time.

  5. What a beautiful post and tribute to your mother. She’s so lucky to have a thoughtful son!

  6. So lovely. Both Louise and your mom are very lucky women. xxx

  7. Janie Uzzell says:

    You have made your Mom and your relationship with her come alive in the
    words you have written-beautiful Shawn.

  8. […] MOM FINALLY TAKES SOME TIME OFF My mom worked in manufacturing plants basically from the time she was 18 until 63. She finally retired this year and I wrote a few words about her. […]

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