From someone who knows: Kimberly-Clark mill’s end ‘devastating’

Helen Cupic Stone retired last summer. She worked an astonishing 51 years at the Everett plant operated by the Scott Paper Company and later the Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

She wishes she had stayed — until the bitter end.

“It’s breaking my heart that the place is closing,” the Everett woman said Thursday.

When Stone, 72, retired from her job as a Kimberly-Clark machine operator July 1, she had been there longer than any other worker in the factory’s history.

“She was here longest,” said Josh Estes, president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 183, the union representing Kimberly-Clark workers.

The Everett plant won’t officially close until March, but last week was the end for most of its workers — including Stone’s daughter, Marija Stone, whose last night at the plant was Tuesday. She had worked there, running a winder machine, 24 years.

In early December, it was announced that negotiations between Kimberly-Clark and a potential buyer, Atlas Holdings Inc., were unsuccessful and the plant would be closed by spring.

“The plan is to have the plant completely closed by the end of March,” Bob Brand, Kimberly-Clark’s director of external communications, said Friday. Brand said the majority of about 700 workers “were off the payroll by the end of the year.”

Estes said Friday that as many as 160 workers will stay on through March. The rest have said their goodbyes. Groups of workers met all last week at Scuttlebutt, a restaurant and brewery on the Everett waterfront. Estes said Friday he expected Kimberly-Clark workers would stay at the pub until closing time.

“The skeleton crew pretty much officially starts tomorrow,” Estes said Friday. “What they’ll do is run the material out to satisfy Kimberly-Clark’s demand for products we make in Everett.” After that, he said, remaining workers will shut down and transfer equipment to other facilities and prepare for the plant’s demolition.

“I’ve seen that smokestack my whole life,” said Stone, who grew up and still lives on Grand Avenue, within walking distance of the plant.

And she walked to work for 25 years, until a security guard warned her it wasn’t the best idea for a woman to be out alone on foot in the wee hours.

Stone inherited a strong work ethic from her parents. Steve and Kata Cupic came here from the Croatian island of Korcula. Her father was a fisherman who traveled north to the Bering Sea. Her mother worked at an Everett waterfront fish house, where she made kippered salmon and toiled at other jobs.

“They were hard-working people,” Stone said.

After graduating from Everett High School in 1957, Helen worked a summer at the fish house with her mother before going to an Everett business college. Within a year, she was looking for work at an Everett mill. In a hometown dubbed “milltown,” it wasn’t hard to find.

“When I started, there were several mills in Everett: Weyerhaeuser and others,” she said.

She was 18 in 1959 when she started at the Scott Paper Company. Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. Her pay was $1.80 an hour.

She ran all kinds of machines in the plant’s converting area, where paper made in the mill was converted into finished toilet paper and other products. By the time she retired, winder operators also did other jobs. “We made Kirkland brand toilet paper for Costco,” she said.

Stone has a lifetime of memories from work. As a young woman, she wore her hair up in a beehive. “I thought I was the cat’s pajamas,” she said. A nurse who oversaw a plant safety program saw how close her hairdo was to a conveyor mechanism, and made her comb it down.

When she started, she worked from midnight to 8 a.m. Divorced and raising a son and a daughter, she had help from her parents, who lived next door and watched their grandchildren at night. Later, Stone worked 12-hour shifts, four days on and four days off.

She remembers company picnics, chatting in the break room, and peeking out the plant’s window to see fireworks when she had to work on the Fourth of July. She remembers, too, when women’s wages were much lower than men’s.

By her last years, Stone made as much as $28 an hour.

“It isn’t that I loved working. But I never minded work,” Stone said. “If I knew they were going to close down, I would have stayed. It’s devastating.”

Estes, the union official, said the end is incredibly tough. His mother, Veralee Estes, has worked for about 25 years at the plant. She is in human resources, and met with workers one-on-one about severance details.

“And my grandmother worked there in the 1950s,” he said. “I’m not unique. Everybody I talk to has another family member working there.

“It’s hard to have to sit and watch all the things you worked so hard to establish go away,” Estes said. “It’s not just a piece of you going away. It’s a piece of the history of the entire area.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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