Davich: A workplace anomaly today — retiring after 48 years at same place
JERRY DAVICH May 23, 2014 6:38PM
Updated: June 26, 2014 6:12AM
Mike Walters beamed like a much younger man while standing outside ArcelorMittal on Wednesday morning, belying his 66 years of age.
It’s possibly what he looked like on his first day at the Burns Harbor steel mill, back when it was called Bethlehem Steel. He was hired there on June 6, 1966, as “temporary” summer help, with plans to attend Indiana University Northwest that fall.
Walters never made it to IUN or any other college. Or any other job for that matter. Except for a four-year tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force, he stayed at Bethlehem/ArcelorMittal, eventually joining the mill’s metallurgical department.
He remained at the mill for nearly half a century, becoming something called an optical emissions spectrometer operator — checking steel samples to make sure they met specifications for proper alloys.
Wednesday was his last day at the job. I met him outside the mill’s main gate.
“I finally did it!” the Valparaiso man told his daughter, who called from Colorado to congratulate him. “I can’t believe it either. It’s bittersweet.”
Walters’ wife of 30 years, Deb, met him outside the gate with hugs and smiles. She’s also retiring this month, and they chuckled like teenagers when talking about their future together.
“Not everyone in the mill looks forward to retirement. Some guys don’t want to go home to their wife after work, let alone retire with them,” Walters told me, pulling from his wallet two ID cards, his current one and the other from 1966.
When I worked inside that mill, for a family-run food vendor, I heard similar stories from longtime steelworkers. They’d rather work a double than spend a single extra minute with their wife. Sad but true, Walters confirmed.
Like many region mill workers his age, Walters made it through his entire career with only a high school diploma. It’s not as easy these days but still possible.
“For somebody with just a high school education, I did pretty well for myself,” said Walters, who retired from a six-figure salary.
In his younger days, he dreamed of becoming an air traffic controller at O’Hare International Airport.
“Ah, the pipe dreams of an idealistic youth,” he joked. “Life is what gets in the way with all the plans you make.”
For the record, Walters’ official retirement date will be June 28 after he cashes in five weeks of vacation time.
“Yep, I’ve been here a long time. Unheard of nowadays, huh?” he asked.
I could only nod in agreement as a co-worker stopped by to bring him a few things he had forgot in the office.
Young adults born in the early 1980s held an average of about six jobs each from ages 18 through 26, a U.S. Labor Department survey shows. And members of today’s workforce could work in six or more careers in their life. Yes, careers.
Before retiring last week, Walters was one of 4.3 million Americans 65 and older with a full-time job, up from 1.3 million in 1992, according to U.S. Census figures.
“The job, like life, is what you make of it,” he said wisely. “Choose to be happy or not.”
It helped that he chose to work in a laboratory — heated in the winter, air conditioned in the summer — rather than remain in the mill’s more dangerous departments. He also enjoyed his “Cadillac” health insurance and other company perks.
“I thought this would be a good job to retire from, and I think I did make the right choice,” Walters said. “As time progressed and the economy changed, I slowly became the not-so-dumb mill rat who would frequently be asked how to get hired in here.”
He quietly watched the jobs of other workers his age get axed, downsized or outsourced overseas. The years piled up, from the Johnson administration to the Obama administration.
What will Walters miss most from his job? His salary? His workplace identity? His financial security?
“The camaraderie and good friends I made through the years,” he said without hesitation.
Walters has no regrets about retiring. It was his time to start enjoying more of the fruits from his many years of labor.
“I have no health issues other than age-related aches and pains, so I’ll be able to pursue one of my retirement goals, golf course evaluator,” he joked.
He and his wife plan on doing a lot of traveling together, starting with an Alaskan cruise next month and a visit to his daughter in Colorado. They also plan on making more homemade wine, taking cooking classes, a little gardening and decorative glass fusing with a kiln.
Oh, and not leaving for work each night about 10 p.m. for a 12-hour shift.
“I’ve worked since I was 12 years old,” Walters said, starting as a Post-Tribune paperboy. “I don’t plan on working anymore, that’s for sure.”
Listen to Mike Walters on his last day at work. Watch the video at http://posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html.
Connect with Jerry via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail at 713-7237 or Facebook, Twitter and his blog at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.