For mill workers, a year shaped by loss

Rubble, bare dirt and an unfamiliar view are all that’s left. The people — more than 700 — have scattered.

After years spent toiling at Kimberly-Clark on Everett’s waterfront, some retired sooner than they wanted. Others found new careers. Some went back to school. The unluckiest ones continue to hunt for jobs and paychecks.

It was April 15, 2012, a Sunday just a year ago, that the last workers finished their final shift at the paper mill. They walked away forever from jobs some had held for decades. Many had family histories at the mill dating back to the days of the Scott Paper Co.

The 66-acre mill site along West Marine View Drive, where pulp and paper products were made, is mostly leveled, except for a warehouse building. Demolition work by Cambria Contracting Inc. is expected to continue through May. The Port of Everett has expressed interest in buying the property.

Today we check in with several former Kimberly-Clark workers. A year ago, they told their stories to Herald writer Debra Smith for her series “The Last Smokestack.”

Mike Ingrum, 45, Mount Vernon

Mike Ingrum ran a huge boiler, the No. 10. His work at Kimberly-Clark was so specialized he worried he wouldn’t find work without leaving the Northwest.

A year after the mill’s closure, Ingrum tells a success story. He works at the Tesoro Anacortes Refinery. His earnings are equal to his Kimberly-Clark wages, and he expects that pay to rise.

“I was able to take a lot of the job skills from Kimberly-Clark and transfer them,” said Ingrum, 45, who has moved from Marysville to Mount Vernon to be closer to work.

At the mill, the 10-story boiler burned sugars left from pulp-making. Acid created in the process helped turn wood chips into pulp. Steam from the big boiler also generated power. Now Ingrum is truly in the energy business.

“I’m making gas instead of toilet paper,” he said. “I’m an operator in one of the zones, basically taking crude oil and turning it into gas. One of the jobs I do there, when the great big tanker ships come, I go out on the wharf and tie those up.”

He works 12-hour days. Like his old job, this one has potential for danger. A 2010 explosion at the Tesoro plant killed seven people. “You can’t make mistakes. There’s a memorial there, so we’re reminded every day,” he said.

After the Everett mill closed, Ingrum was out of work almost four months. “It was the first time in my life, since I was 20, that I did not have a job,” he said. Ingrum considered moving to Hawaii for a job at a plant that turns garbage into electricity. “I didn’t sleep for a week trying to decide,” he said.

With a daughter in Marysville and other family nearby, he is happy he didn’t go far.

“I’m lucky. A lot of people took pay cuts,” he said.

It still upsets Ingrum to see bare land where he once earned a good wage and made close friends. “I can’t even look at it hardly. It’s sickening,” he said.

Joanne Moore, 58, Arlington

Angie Mardesich, 54, Marysville

By the end of his life, Vince Mardesich had seen the shutdown of the mill where he worked for 32 years before retiring in the 1980s. He saw two of his daughters, Joanne Moore and Angie Mardesich, lose their Kimberly-Clark jobs last year.

The Everett man was pictured with those daughters as part of “The Last Smokestack” series. It’s an iconic image, the rugged face of a longtime mill worker.

Mardesich died Dec. 18 at 84, less than two weeks after the death of his wife, Mary Harvey Mardesich. He had suffered from lung problems, and had also recently lost a sister.

“That was a tough year,” said Angie Mardesich, 54, who now works for the Boeing Co. The Marysville woman started at Everett’s Boeing plant in July. Hired for mechanic assembly, she builds stow bins. It’s different than at Kimberly-Clark.

“The mill was so fast-paced. It was hard labor. I didn’t realize how hard until I went to a different job,” she said.

Her sister is retired. At 58, Moore’s Kimberly-Clark pension is 10 percent less than it would have been had she been able to work until 60. Even so, the Arlington woman feels lucky. “I could retire. A lot of people still don’t have jobs,” she said.

Moore, who gets together with Kimberly-Clark friends, said it’s hard to see the place where she drove a forklift, and where her dad once had that job. Nothing is left.

“I still have a hard time believing it happened,” Moore said. “I wanted to get a job when I left, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew I wasn’t going to find another job like that.”

Her sister plans to stay at Boeing. “I’m going to buy my father’s house,” said Mardesich, who looks forward to living in her girlhood home on Rucker Avenue. “He worked so hard. We all just want my dad back.”

Troy Woodard, 41, Everett

In his 17 years at Kimberly-Clark, Troy Woodard’s favorite job was safety specialist. He’s still keeping workers safe — all kinds of workers.

Woodard, 41, is a safety compliance officer with the state’s Department of Labor &Industries. “I go out to job sites and make sure the employer is following the standards, providing a safe workplace,” he said. His job covers all of King County.

From a narrower focus at the mill, he has learned about safety in other types of factories, in logging, retail and other businesses.

The father of two feels fortunate to have stable work. His pay, though, is down more than 30 percent from his Kimberly-Clark earnings. Another downside is a commute to downtown Seattle. “Before, I had an 11-minute commute,” the Everett man said.

For a time after the mill closed, he worked at United Way of Snohomish County’s office with a group helping other mill workers find jobs. “It was fortunate Boeing was hiring at about the same time,” he said. About 160 workers from the mill landed Boeing jobs, he said.

Woodard is sad driving past the cleared mill site, but said, “I guess life kind of moves on.”

“We all would have wanted to stay,” Woodard said. “My family had 80 years of service there, three generations.”

He sees positives, especially for people who took advantage of retraining through federal Trade Act assistance. “Some folks are getting ready to graduate. So many thought they were mill workers for life,” he said. “That’s the silver lining, seeing people do things they would never have done, moving on to all different fields.”

Ray Jones, 56, Lake Stevens

Ray Jones was there with workers on the last shift.

“I did stay until the end,” said Jones, 56, who was a manager in human resources at Kimberly-Clark.

He was among those paid by the company to help displaced co-workers find new jobs. Jones worried about finding a job himself after 36 years at the mill. Interviewed last year, he said it wouldn’t be easy fighting “the stigma of age.”

Yet today, the Lake Stevens man works for Boeing, and he’s still in human resources.

Jones is thankful for educational opportunities offered by the Scott Paper Co. during his early years there. A Cascade High School graduate, he said he didn’t take school seriously until college, which was paid for by the company.

While working full time at Scott, he went to college. He set his sights on a bachelor’s degree in accounting. When he learned he would earn more at the mill, he stayed in school to get a master’s in business administration and moved into management at the company.

“I would have stayed through retirement,” said Jones, whose father, brother, son and uncle had all worked for Scott Paper or Kimberly-Clark.

Jones learned from the closure that no job is absolutely secure. “We were in an industry that was non-cyclical. The mill hadn’t laid off bargaining unit workers in nearly 30 years,” he said. Yet all of a sudden, a viable business was being shut down. “Don’t ever get too complacent or too comfortable,” Jones said.

He is astonished at how quickly the landscape changed.

“Here were 66 acres of brick-and-mortar buildings, and vibrant family-wage jobs,” Jones said. “Now it’s flat ground. It makes you wonder, was it ever real?”

Joe Reed, 52, Everett

Joe Reed is still looking.

He’s been to Tennessee, to the Kruger Products tissue mill in Memphis. He’s been to a smaller paper company in Arizona. Those trips brought no job offers at pay he seriously considered.

“The moving part would be bad enough, but then to start at entry level — I’m making that much on unemployment,” Reed said.

Reed, 52, isn’t sure how long he’ll keep receiving unemployment benefits. He and his wife, Amy, also a former Kimberly-Clark worker, still live in their house on Everett’s Rainier Avenue.

A former paper machine tender, Reed spent more than 30 years at the Everett mill. He had a good job running machine No. 4, which produced napkins. After seeing that machine dismantled, he said he was told it would be shipped to China.

Lately he has applied for outdoor work. He said he wasn’t hired for one job because he lacked “a year’s experience landscaping.”

“It’s frustrating,” Reed said. “I’ve got my name in at Boeing. I’ve had a lot of interviews. I’m 52. I can understand it to a point — how long is this guy going to hang around?”

Even after three decades at the mill, Reed said he is too young to qualify now for his Kimberly-Clark pension.

The job hunt is daunting. When he was hired at Scott, he filled out one piece of paper. He now needs a resume, and often an online application.

Still, Reed works at finding work. At 8 a.m. every Monday, he goes to WorkSource at Everett Station for employment networking. He attended a class in how to navigate Boeing’s job application process. “It’s a lot different. They don’t get back to you to tell you no, so you can move on. It’s kind of like dating,” he said.

Like others who spent decades at the mill, Reed looks at the place now in near disbelief.

“My last four months I worked on the loading dock,” he said. He put equipment onto trucks for shipment to other mills. “It was kind of like we were in denial,” Reed said.

“Now we go down there, one of our running jokes is ‘They must be serious about this.’ “

Jayne DeWitt, 64, Bellingham

She’s 64, but Jayne DeWitt can’t retire, not yet.

“I had only been at Kimberly-Clark about seven years,” said DeWitt, a survivor of a previous mill shutdown.

Starting in the mid-1970s, she worked at a Georgia-Pacific mill in Bellingham. In 2001, the Georgia-Pacific Corp. closed its Bellingham pulp mill. Its Bellingham toilet tissue plant shut down in 2007.

Until recently, she had a job at a WorkSource office in Mount Vernon helping others find work. “It was a benefit the union negotiated with Kimberly-Clark. They funded it for six months, and then we were paid through a national emergency grant,” DeWitt said. With a house in Bellingham, she had commuted 136 miles round-trip to the Everett mill.

Now she is home. “I just got laid off from that job. I am among the unemployed,” she said.

Her last position at Kimberly-Clark was as a safety coordinator. DeWitt is now taking an online course in occupational safety and health through Columbia Southern University.

“It takes work to get a job,” she said. “The days of going to work with Dad — that’s how a lot of these people started out. Now you have to have other skills.”

Ruth-Anne Huston, 58, Arlington

Tools, machinery and the blood and sweat of mill work are memories now. For Ruth-Anne Huston, life revolves around classes, homework and hours in the library.

At 58, the Arlington woman is an Everett Community College student. Like other former Kimberly-Clark workers, she took advantage of education money provided through the federal Trade Act.

“It’s paying for my schooling, books and parking. You can’t beat it,” Huston said. To get the deal, she couldn’t just study art or some other personal interest. “You had to choose an occupation in demand in Snohomish County.”

Huston picked accounting. “I always liked numbers, and I’ve done well,” she said. She is now in her fifth quarter, on track to graduate in December with an associate’s degree in accounting.

School is a big change from running a machine that made paper towels, the kind dispensed “one at a time, like in a hotel bathroom.”

Interviewed for “The Last Smokestack” series, Huston recalled starting at Scott Paper when she was 19. She was a hand packer, meaning she spent her shifts packing six of the four-roll toilet paper packages into each case. Suffering a cut hand wasn’t unusual.

“It was real heavy work, with long hours working nights and weekends. I’m not so young anymore for all that,” Huston said.

Her dream now is an accounting job with a city, county, or for the Boeing Co. “I’m not going to work there 30 years,” said Huston, who spent 38 years at the mill. She would like to retire at 65. “It depends on how soon I do things like pay off the mortgage,” Huston said.

After high school, she took one college course. “It wasn’t for me. Now I have almost all A’s,” said Huston, whose classes this quarter include one in business taxation.

“Maybe things take me a few minutes longer than for these young kids. But twice I’ve been on the dean’s list for academic achievement,” she said. “It’s invigorating. I love to learn.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

Click to read all the stories from the Last Smokestack series.

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