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Former GM employees anticipate upcoming opportunity to "meet again"

  • 10 min to read

ONTARIO -- Cathy Hetsler watched her longtime employer, General Motors, slowly deteriorate in the months after management announced its impending closure on June 1, 2009.

The Bellville woman and her coworkers clung to a simple motto: “Until we meet again.” No one knew where or when, but holding tight to this belief was more comforting than accepting the more likely, harsh reality: many wouldn’t cross paths again. 

Some like Springfield Township resident Deb Mabry and former Mansfield resident James (Bo) Kovatch would transfer to other GM plants in Parma, Ohio, Roanoke, Indiana or elsewhere. Others, including Lexington resident Keith Bacin, transitioned into new career paths. More still were able to retire early, even if it was at a financial penalty. 

Before her formal retirement from the General Motors Mansfield Ontario stamping plant, Hetsler worked in a transition center, sponsored by the United Auto Workers and GM. The woman, who started at GM as an electrician in the late 1980s, assisted coworkers in a new, often more challenging role of determining their next steps. 

“For almost a year we watched our coworkers -- our family members that we talked to every day and shared our lives with, worked together with and made our living with -- leave a little bit at a time, just trickling away,” Hetlsler said. “At the same time, the plant was getting darker. They’d shut off more lights and sections were getting closed off.

“It was a long, lingering, just painful death.”

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On June 1, 2009, thousands of employees from the Ontario General Motors plant were summoned to one section of the more than 50-acre facility, where they learned the plant would soon close, despite its high production capabilities and an award naming it the “number one stamping plant in the world.”

Forklift driver Deb Mabry was shocked. 

“You could hear a pin drop it was so quiet. I remember looking at one of my coworkers and we both just hugged and started crying,” Mabry said. “We had heard rumors through the grapevine … saying, ‘they’re going to close this plant,’ and we didn’t believe it. We were the number one stamping plant. You never think it’s going to happen to you.”  

She accepted a job with GM in March 1981. She was laid off after 89 days, but was recalled in 1984. She would be laid off many times over the years, but she was consistently called back. 

“Back then, there were no good paying jobs, General Motors is where you wanted to work,” she said. 

More importantly, Mabry enjoyed coming to work. She took pride in the plant’s production abilities and still feels a sense of accomplishment when reflecting on her involvement on an elected committee. It was a role she appreciated, and she worked hard to be worthy of her coworkers’ trust.

The strong family bond formed between thousands of GM employees at the Ontario plant, she believes is something no one can truly understand without having experienced it. 

“I had never known that a huge factory could have a family environment like that. We had different personalities, but at the end of the day, it was like, you forgive and forget and move on. That was it,” Mabry said. 

One fellow forklift driver, Amanda, would playfully refer to Mabry as her “work mom.” To Mabry, Amanda -- though much younger in age --  was a best friend. They talked about the things going on in their lives, parenting and the challenges they faced when losing their own mothers. They’d even celebrate their birthdays together, as they were only a day apart. 

When learning her longtime employer would close, Mabry worried, cried and began wondering what would happen next. Still, it wasn’t until additional information was later released that she realized how drastically her life would change. 

Mabry’s husband Darrell, also a GM employee, retired. He worked enough years in the plant to do so. She, however, was four years shy. 

“I had 26 years, so I had to go to another plant. I had to finish my time with General Motors,” Mabry said. 

In October 2009, she and Darrell drove to Parma to tour what would soon become her new workplace. 

“You walk in, and you’re the new kid on the block. People are watching you and sizing you up,” Mabry said. “They were very upset that people from another plant were coming to their plant with their seniority, which would displace them to a different shift or a different department.” 

She cried for the entire 90-minute drive home. 

“I was just so angry. I was mad at the world and everyone in it. And it took me a long time to get over the anger and betrayal of General Motors,” she said. 

Mabry transferred to Parma’s plant in January 2010, directly after the holidays when many of her coworkers were still on vacation. At that time, she had no knowledge of the plant beyond the 2009 tour and no friends beyond the handful of Ontario employees who accompanied her in the transfer. 

“But you don’t really get to say your final goodbyes to people anyways,” she said. “You’re so focused on moving in a different direction and becoming an outsider at another plant that you forget ... to look around your environment in that plant and remember as much as you can, because you can’t go back once it’s done.” 

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The Ontario-based GM plant wasn’t the first to ever permanently shut its doors.

The circumstances were once reversed, said Lexington resident and former GM tool and die maker, Keith Bacin. Richland County area workers were forced to welcome new employees into their departments, as the plants in Parma and elsewhere would do in 2009 and 2010. 

“And I didn’t have the appreciation for them that I should have. I didn’t have the sympathy for them that I should have,” Bacin admitted. “The only thing I saw was another person ahead of me on the seniority list. 

“Shame on me, but it happened.”  

He had worked at Ontario plant since 1985 and never imagined the same could happen to himself or his coworkers. 

The plant’s machinery produced at impressive rates -- ones that would never be replicated when moved elsewhere. The employees were recognized for their successes with numerous awards. 

“Every roadblock that General Motors would try to throw up in front of us, every number they wanted us to beat, we beat,” he said. 

He learned the bleak news about GM’s Ontario plant while on a family vacation in Florida. His coworkers tipped him to the news, and Bacin came to realize he’d return to a different workplace -- one where the friendly day-to-day interactions between coworkers would be replaced with fearful whispering of what might happen next. 

With his parents in their 80s and his wife’s in their late 70s, moving wasn’t an option he’d even consider. He’d need to find a new career. 

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When James (Bo) Kovatch was hired by the Ontario GM plant as a production worker in 1985, the 18-year-old was making at least three times more than his high school friends. 

“It just seemed like the dream job,” Kovatch said. 

He considered college, but when making $11 an hour and earning even more for working double shifts, he kept at it. 

The family-feel of the plant drew him in further. Then, as if to top it off, he met his wife, Tammy, a short, blonde production worker with a beaming smile and bubbly personality.  She once claimed she was 30 with two children to keep men away.  

The rumor quickly traveled around the plant. 

Kovatch noticed her in 1981, but didn’t know more than her cover story until 1988. Tammy was actually similar to his age and had no children. 

“I worked with her one day and we hit it off,” he said. 

They married in 1992. Kovatch, who had always been a quiet man, became known around the plant as Tammy’s husband. 

“We joke because I went the other day to see a former coworker. I knew him. I didn’t expect that he’d know me, but I walk in and I tell him, ‘I’m Bo.’ He didn’t seem to remember me,” Kovatch said. “And then I said, ‘I’m Tammy’s husband.’” 

Sure enough, the coworker remembered his wife and her magnetic personality. Kovatch says his wife is outgoing, easy-to-talk-to and kind to anyone around her. She was the employee who was quick to welcome those transferring to Ontario from other GM plants. 

In 2004, Tammy was in a vehicle accident, which ultimately caused her to lose her vision. 

“She was in extremely critical condition,” Kovatch said. 

Just as in 1981, when Tammy’s cover story quickly made its way around the plant, the news of her injury spread similarly. 

“There were visits, cards, signs. People from the plant were coming up with gifts, and they raised money for us ... I always wanted to repay them in some way,” Kovatch said. 

He was laid off when GM announced its plans to close. He was expecting some type of negative news, but hadn’t realized to what extent. 

“The phone rang at 8 a.m. in the morning, and life changed in an instant,” Kovatch said. “I’ll never forget that. Ten years ago. June 1, 2009. I’ll never forget that.”

He felt fortunate to be able to transfer to the Parma plant. He had advanced to a skilled trade by this time, but became a production worker again and took a paycut for the opportunity to stay in Ohio. 

He’d commute to Parma daily, often via a carpool. Kovatch would wake up at 4 a.m., leave by 4:30 to meet up with others in Ashland and then drive or ride along to get to the Parma plant by 6 a.m. 

“You work eight hours, and then you repeat,” he said. “You’re basically working a 12-hour schedule, but only getting paid for eight. And when you get home, you don’t feel like cutting the grass. Your life and home suffers. 

“You’re coming home, but it’s not the same home; it’s not the same life.” 

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Mabry left Ontario’s GM plant determined to dislike her new workplace in Parma. 

She moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment in North Royalton and would only see her husband, Darrell, when he’d visit for Wednesday date nights and when she’d travel back to Springfield Township for the weekends. Darrell, who hadn’t wanted to retire yet, worked a job in Columbus.

“The first couple years I worked all the overtime they offered me. I didn’t go out with friends. My life changed so drastically,” Mabry said about working at Parma GM. 

Deb & Darrell

Deb and Darrell Mabry at the General Motors Mansfield Ontario Plant prior to its closure in 2010. 

She had no intention to make friends at the new plant, and initially, she didn’t. Some of her new coworkers would cuss at her and tell her “to go back to where you came from.” 

Looking back, she says, it was “by far the hardest thing” she’d ever done. It tested her relationship, her friendships and her own personal strength. Some days, especially early on, it took every ounce of her courage to work another day with coworkers who didn’t want her around.

This went on for weeks, until one day she realized she was starting to fit in. She made friends at work and felt fortunate to have a job that was close enough to her family that she could make frequent visits. 

“Reality set in. They could have walked into the Mansfield plant and said, ‘We’re closing you, and there’s nowhere for you to go,’ but instead we were fortunate enough to go to another plant to finish out our time for retirement,” she said. 

The Hetslers

Mabry only needed to work four years at the Parma plant, but she worked six before retiring. 

“I had a wonderful group of friends in Parma, and I’d consider them my GM family, too,” she said. 

Upon the closure of GM’s Ontario plant, Bacin went to school and earned an associate’s degree in health technology and became a certified surgical technician.

He considers GM his first career, and this his second.

Kovatch and his wife, Tammy, eventually moved to North Olmstead to decrease his commute to the Parma plant, and he has since moved from production work back into skilled trades. 

Still, one memory of the Ontario GM plant has always remained with Kovatch: how his coworkers came together for his family in 2004, following his wife’s severe accident. 

He’s long wondered, how can I repay them? 

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Occasionally, a name or a face will pop into Bacin’s head, and he’ll wonder, what are they doing now? 

He misses even the smallest of interactions, such as saying hello to and joking with the coworkers he’d pass while walking to his lunch break.

“It was so easy to see people every day, people that I encountered daily. I miss those little interactions,” he said. 

When GM’s Ontario plant closed, he didn’t consider it “goodbye.” He, like so many others, believed they’d meet again. 

This wasn’t a fork in the road. It was a speed bump, an inconvenience to their friendships and anything but goodbye. It was “until we meet again.” 

Throughout the past decade, many coworkers have met again. They’ve stayed in touch, had regular lunches and held several small gatherings. 

In February, Kovatch made a post through his wife’s Facebook page about a potential 10-year reunion. Perhaps one of the least likely people to initiate such a plan, Kovatch longed to reconnect with some of his former coworkers and wondered if maybe by speaking up he could launch something big enough that it could repay his coworkers for their kindness towards him and his wife, Tammy. 

“Not that I did anything more than said, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’” Kovatch said. “I just know a lot of people wanted to have this. I think the timing was just right for the event.” 

It was the same people who were “the doers” a decade ago, who responded to his post and decided to bring the idea to life. They met regularly to organize the event, called hundreds of people from an old directory and collected more than 3,000 photos and videos from the plant’s glory days so that on Saturday, July 27 -- more than a decade after their plant announced plans to close -- their former General Motors coworkers will have the chance to "meet again" at Marshall Park. 

The reunion, believed to be the largest gathering of the plant’s employees since its closure in 2010, will kick off at 1 p.m. at Ontario’s Marshall Park, 3375 Milligan Rd. 

Food will be available for purchase via food trucks parked inside the park through 6 p.m., but former employees -- management and union alike -- and anyone with a connection to or interest in the former plant are encouraged to visit among each other into the evening. 

“You just show up. You run into a few familiar faces, and you spend hours just reminiscing and recollecting, which we all do every time we all run into friends,” Kovatch said. “They’re like a mini-reunion. Just multiply that by 100.” 

Throughout the day three group photos will be taken  -- as different people are bound to show up at different times -- and attendees will pray over a memorial board for deceased family and friends. People are encouraged to bring photos of former employees for the board. 

“We kept this very simple,” Kovatch said. “We wanted a place where people could talk, listen, and hear in a family atmosphere.

“It  sounds kind of corny, but if we can connect two people who haven’t seen each other since the plant closed, it’s a success for me.” 

To Mabry, who long struggled with the fact that she never said goodbye to many of her former coworkers, the reunion is something she’s needed for closure. 

“This is going to be good for our souls,” she said.

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