By Jesse Bogan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
KIRKWOOD, Mo. — The day the boss man finally came for Bob King was July 22.
That day started out as routine. King stuffed a low-sodium breakfast and lunch into a brown sack and nosed his 2011 Toyota Camry north on Lindbergh Boulevard all the way to Boeing.
The stalwart employee found a parking space on the sprawling lot near the airport and ambled to the front door, cane in hand. Then he went down a long hall to the elevator, up a few floors, across another hallway and a few more stairs to Building No. 32, where he settled into a cubicle.
King, 87, ran his blue eyes over spreadsheets and databases. In his latest gig as a systems engineer in Off-Boeing Programs, he kept track of the labyrinth of regulations and directions on how to install new wings on the A-10 Warthog used by the U.S. Air Force.
In his seat that memorable day last summer, a manager — about the age of King’s children — tapped him on the shoulder.
His career, which spanned more than a half-century of aerospace innovation, was coming to an end.
“I got caught in a RIF,” said King, perturbed. “You know what that is?”
King was part of a reduction in force at the $97 billion behemoth. All of a sudden, he had 60 days to prepare for retirement and pass along parting knowledge.
There had been celebrations for him throughout his tenure, marking 40 years of service, 45 and 50. In September, after 53 years with Boeing, a cake-cutting marked his forced retirement.
A layoff, even this late in life, stings.
King was one of the oldest of 14,000 Boeing employees in the St. Louis area. Yet he still sounded a little bitter.
Then he yielded.
“God knew I was never going to retire and he said, ‘I have news for you,’” said King, a devout member of Trinity Lutheran Church. “I’d have worked forever.”
And so King has come home to Kirkwood.
He and his wife, Donamay, live in a ranch home with three bedrooms and one bath. They bought it in 1964 for $18,500 and raised six children there born within a span of seven years.
While Bob chipped away at missiles and electronic equipment, Donamay ran the packed home on Cherry Street.
“Some guys will do anything to get out of the house and get out of yard work,” Donamay, finally coming out to talk, said laughing. “He’s a workaholic with airplanes and other stuff. Nothing around here.”
They met as children in a rural area near Toledo, Ohio, where, at times, they grew up without running water. Sometimes he cut asparagus and picked tomatoes for Donamay’s father, who had a vegetable and fruit business.
“Maybe my dad was a little bit like my husband because my dad just worked and worked and worked. So did my mom,” Donamay said. “Sometimes he was so tired, he’d be sitting there eating an apple and he’d fall asleep. He was a good guy.”
Bob King was valedictorian of his high school class of 18 students, according to a newspaper clip. He studied engineering at the University of Toledo and taught radar repair in the Marine Corps.
Starting in the 1950s, he cut his teeth for a decade at Convair in San Diego by helping develop flight control systems for the F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart.
“Those were good days when I would go out and work on the aircraft and go down to production and teach them how to rig the flight control,” he said.
Upon moving to St. Louis in 1963 to work at McDonnell Aircraft, what would eventually become Boeing through a series of mergers, he developed the reputation of a tenacious analyzer.
“I have excellent skills at seeing the big picture and the little details all at the same time and keeping it all in the proper perspective,” he said.
Tim Bartlett, director of Off-Boeing Programs, confirmed as much. King was recently one of 300 employees under Bartlett’s wing. He said none of them, other than King, worked beyond their 60s.
Boeing didn’t provide broader personnel demographics but pointed to stories a few years ago about Elinor Otto, a 93-year-old “Rosie the Riveter” who still worked for the company in California at the time.
Bartlett said King was respected late in his career for his intelligence: “A lot of wisdom. A lot of history. He’s also attuned to state-of-the-art systems.”
Bartlett, 47, shares the same birthday with his former employee.
“Bob is definitely good at giving me feedback,” he said. “I valued it at different times for sure.”
King previously held management positions and, as part of the corporate planning department, researched ways the company could diversify product lines and possibly get out of others.
“Should we build buses? Trains?” King said. “We even looked at Peabody (Energy) at one time and said, ‘No way.’”
In the 1970s, he was involved with the suspended maneuvering system, which was supposed to help fire departments pluck people from burning high-rises.
“We felt there was a need for it,” King said.
But it didn’t become mass-produced because the system required a medium-size helicopter to deploy. Most cities had small helicopters that couldn’t support the weight.
Reflecting on the project, King talked about the complexity of bringing a new product to market.
“There is a long way between an idea and design and development and production,” he said.
He was also an engineer on the cruise missile and Tomahawk weapons system. He said he was a “trusted agent” with the Navy.
He justified helping manufacture lethal weapons by weighing the alternative.
“We are building what we need to keep the peace,” he said. “Hopefully, we never use it, but you can’t afford to be without it.”
King’s health eventually became an obstacle along his career path. He had a heart attack in 1989. A 2005 stroke limited use of his right arm. More recently, he’s had a stent put in his left carotid artery. With congestive heart failure, fluid sometimes needs to be drained from his body. He’s limited to consuming no more than 64 ounces of water per day.
He still spends a lot of time behind a desk, only now it’s at home, where he studies various Excel spreadsheets. Each cell has Bible verses and other details for his “Kingdom of God” book project. He watchdogs his investments, which have included tuition for grandchildren and great-grandchildren, donations to many charities and his own retirement.
As part of his layoff package, he was paid one week’s salary for every year he worked. Sounding disappointed again, he said Boeing capped the payout at 26 years of service.
Not that he needs the extra money. The house and family car are paid for many times over.
He said he wants to tutor math and stay involved in other projects.
He said it’s time to spend time at home with Donamay.
“People ask me about Bob, and I say he’s going to do what he’s going to do,” she said. “He probably says the same about me.”
They are getting to know each other again.