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Tanners Creek Plant celebrates 60 years

by on June 29, 2011

(Story written by Yavonda Ulfig)

LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. — Inside a picture frame placed outside Tanners Creek Plant on a recent sunny afternoon hung an old creased, tan newspaper page that said it all.

“Welcome — Tanners Creek Power Plant” the headline of the Lawrenceburg Register read in big, bold red letters.

That issue was printed on May 24, 1951. Now — nearly 60 years later — the plant that rose from a river-bottom site has become not only an anchor in the local community, but a valuable part of the lives of the employees and retirees who have been proud to call the plant their home away from home over the years.

Retiree John Peters, who began his career at Tanners Creek Plant in April 1957 and left in January 1996, browses through items about past and present employees.

“This is exciting,” said John Reid, who retired in 1998 as assistant plant manager, “considering when I started here in 1963 everybody was telling me it was a 25-year life unit. It’s wonderful for the plant to have reached 60 years.”

No wonder more than 250 employees, retirees and family members gathered to celebrate the momentous anniversary during a recent luncheon that took place outside the plant.

Despite the uncertainties that lie ahead for the plant in light of the EPA’s proposed rulings that could potentially shut down Units 1-3, this was a time not to worry about the future. Instead, said Doris Young, it was a time to celebrate the past and recognize the impact Tanners Creek continues to have on the lives of employees and the local community today.

“It is exciting to see so many people here celebrating such a special occasion,” said Young, who was instrumental in getting everyone together and assembling the memorabilia that drew many pairs of eyes that day.

Attendees were greeted by a large sign that read “Tanners Creek Plant 60th Anniversary.” Underneath the tent, the aroma of fried chicken, biscuits and potato wedges teased the nostrils as attendees mingled and caught up with what was going on in their lives.

You could hear an occasional gasp of surprise as friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while approached each other to shake hands or give each other a warm embrace. A “How’s it going, Mike?” over here was followed by a “What’d ya say, buddy?” over there.

Meanwhile, a number of attendees developed nostalgia as they browsed through the memorabilia on display, scanning through the names of the current and former employees of Tanners Creek. An occasional chuckle arose as others gazed at picture frames filled with old black-and-white photos, taking them back to a different time and conjuring up conversations about the old days.

Each conversation that day was unique. Each employee’s personal story was different. But a common theme resonated with so many employees during that special anniversary celebration: “Thank you for the memories.”

Memories

A young face on the poster board smirked at Lanny Wyatt as he stared back in awe.

“Time has its effects on you,” said Wyatt with a smile as he stared at the black-and-white photo of his younger self with a chuckle. It seemed like only yesterday that he first got plugged into Tanners creek in 1967, retiring decades later in 2005 as safety supervisor.

For Michael Holland, staring at the old photos and names of former employees was enough to take him back, too.

“It’s amazing the people it brings back to mind,” said Holland, who began his career at Tanners Creek in 1970 as part of the Labor Gang and retired last year as a welder. “A lot of names. A lot of memories.”

Ditto for Jim “Trees” Trester, who said he started with the company back in 1966. “You see a lot of the old timers,” he said as he started at a range of old photos. “Every time you see them, you get flashbacks.”

Perhaps one of the greatest flashbacks for Reid, the 1998 retiree, surrounds the “Great Flood of ’64.” “The plant was an island — we came in by boat,” Reid said with his wife, Linda, nodding her head and smiling as she reflected on that memorable event. “The levee had broken. It was one of the highest floods we’ve had since we were here.”

Fast forward 13 years, and yet another dramatic event became etched in the memory of Reid and his co-workers. This time, however, they weren’t dealing with a flood. They were dealing with something else — a blizzard.

“He got up and made it to work and didn’t make it home for three days,” Linda said with a laugh as they reflected on the Blizzard of ’77.

Employees mingle during the celebration at Tanners Creek Plant.

“Yeah, we took turns sleeping and working,” John Reid chimed in as he thought about his co-workers at the time. “Basically everybody could do everything, so it worked out well.”

Beyond these unique stories, one of the greatest general memories family members shared during the recent celebration was simply the quality of life they experienced because of Tanners Creek.

“It provided a very nice living for us,” said Marlene Manford, whose husband, Rollin Manford, began at Tanners Creek as part of the Labor Gang in January 1953. He stood next to the memorabilia outside the plant, reflecting on how he had worked his way into the coal yard and then moved into maintenance before retiring as maintenance coordinator in September 1994.

Across the way, Wallace Witte sat in a chair under the tent and reminisced about his own journey at Tanners Creek. The majority of that journey — 30 years — was spent as a pilot on the boat. “I had a lot of fun working here–a lot of nice families,” said Witte, who began his career in December 1951 and spent a total of 43 years at Tanners Creek.

As his son, David, sat next to him with a smile, he had quite a few memories of his own. “He used to bring us basketballs and baseballs and footballs from the river,” David said as his mind took him back to the days of his youth. “We had all the toy balls in the neighborhood.”

The river also brings up special memories for Terry New, who started at Tanners Creek in 1971 and retired last year. “It was kind of special for me to work with the guys down there,” said New, who worked down on the river in the summers as a barge handler.

The work did pose its share of challenges. “The winters were tough. The decks were icy,” New said. “And I remember the days at the plant when I would leave in the middle of the night to go to work since something needed to be fixed. I was the fix-it guy.”

But would he trade it for anything? Not at all. “I really miss going to work,” he said. “I miss it a lot.”

Of course, as employees and retirees like New spent that afternoon continuing to reflect on some of the memorable moments from their Tanners Creek years, it not only filled them with an ongoing sense of nostalgia, but it gave rise to a rather sobering thought: just how different life was back then, and how quickly the times have changed.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

When Tanners Creek’s first unit started up in 1951 — the year Witte began his career — Harry Truman was president. The world, at that time, was first introduced to Tupperware parties. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was all the rave. One of the most popular Christmas gifts was the View-Master with Disney Reels. And “How High the Moon” was a hit song.

Gradually, pop culture — and technology — began to change over the years. Even then, however, it was hard for many to imagine the many advancements the world would eventually see today.

“When I hired in, you didn’t have to have a college degree for anything,” said retiree Gary Elliott, as he stood next to maintenance welder Ron Thomas. They both began at Tanners Creek by sweeping floors in the early ’70s. “When I left, the job I was doing, you had to have a college education for,” Elliott continued.

It’s a sign of the changing times, employees said, as electronics have become interwoven into Tanners Creek’s fabric and allowed plant operations to evolve significantly over recent decades, resulting in equipment updates and more advanced controls.

“When I first started here, everything was run off of pneumatics,” added New. “Computers came on the scene, and some people were resistant to the change. But I embraced it because I wanted to keep myself current. In fact, 20 years into my career, I got my electronics degree.”

Technology at the plant wasn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years. “Less hair — and I can vouch for that,” Denny Teke, instrument tech, said with a laugh.

Employees said so much has changed over the years that it’s hard to list everything. In fact, the front of the building, many said, was the only thing that hadn’t changed at the plant over the past several decades.

Just about everything — the guard shack on in — has become different,” said John Peters, who began at the plant in April 1957 and retired in January 1996.

But despite the vast array of changes Tanners Creek employees have seen over the years, many agree that several valuable — and most important — aspects of the plant have remain untouched.

Some things never change

Laura Williams is grateful that while life has changed quite a bit over the decades, one thing has remained strong — the family bond Tanners Creek employees have always shared with one another. It’s something she has been thankful to experience just in the past few years she’s been here.

“I’m a newbie,” said Williams, who has been at Tanners Creek on and off for three years, beginning in the landfill division and now working in administration. “And yet I’ve definitely made lots of memories that will last forever in the short time I’ve been here. There’s such a family atmosphere.”

Wanda Meyer, who has been with the company 24 years, has experienced the power of the Tanners Creek family bond firsthand.

As she stood behind a booth signing people up to walk in the popular People Helping People Marathon, she reflected back to one of the scariest moments of her life — back to 13 years ago when she was battling cancer.

“Everyone was so supportive,” Meyer said as she thought about the overwhelming love and support she received. “They let me come in here and work part time when I had my chemo. That was a good feeling to see them support me like I was part of their family.”

Employees demonstrated their family bond again when yet another scare entered Meyer’s life.

It happened just four years ago. She learned someone had been in a bad car accident. It turned out to be her 33-year-old son.

“They let me come and go when I needed to go,” said Meyer, “because I had to help take care of his two younger kids.”

Her son is okay today, she said. And when she sees him, it’s hard not to think about the kind of mutual care at Tanners Creek that has made all the difference in her life, and the lives of those around her.

Doris Young (right) was instrumental in getting everyone together for the anniversary celebration.

“We’re around each other more than we are our own families,” said Rob Louden, a welder who has been with the company four years.

Of course, just as the family bond has remained strong over time, something else has remained just as consistent over the years, too — Tanners Creek’s dedication to safety.

“We have a great group of operators and maintenance people who make this all happen all the time,” said Wyatt. “There’s always been a great pride at Tanners Creek on getting things back online, getting it done safely, making the units available and watching out for your peers.”

Tanners Creek received the Horizon Award in 2002, which it attributes to its strong focus on behavior-based safety and eliminating at-risk behavior.

Another focus that has never changed at the plant is Tanners Creek’s passion for having an impact on the local community.

“Tanners Creek has such a positive image in the community because it does so much to show it cares about people,” added Williams.

The plant’s annual People Helping People marathon raises money for the local area. It’s something that’s near and dear to Wyatt’s heart; after all, helped spearhead the project more than 20 years ago. It all began with one family in need; money was raised to help make a positive impact on their lives, and the program took off from there. “It has been a great blessing for all these years for people in the five-county area,” he said.

“In fact, this is our 22nd year,” added Sonia Deshong, safety supervisor, who currently co-chairs People Helping People with Teke. “That’s pretty awesome,” she said as she methodically cut one of several cakes during the Tanners Creek celebration.

Tanners Creek has particularly made its mark in the local community by donating canned goods each year, Teke added. “We’ve probably done, I figure, almost a million cans over the 20-something years we’ve done it in the Christmas time, and we give thousand dollar checks out in the summer,” said Teke.

Yet another tradition that employees have never stopped valuing at Tanners Creek is simply getting together through fun events that build the brother-sister bond. For example, employees this summer took a family trip to Kings Island in Mason, Ohio.

In the past, they’ve also hosted card parties. They’ve scheduled grill-outs.

“My union rep back when I was involved in the union, he said AEP stands for Always Eating Pizza,” Teke said with a laugh.

“We love to get together and we love to eat — that will never change,” Wyatt chimed in, smiling as he scanned the area outside the plant to see all the employees who were present to dine together that day.

It’s this kind of camaraderie and levity, combined with an ongoing focus on what matters most in life, that has made Tanners Creek employees feel so connected to one another over the years. So connected to each other’s families. So connected to the local community.

And so connected to a plant they couldn’t be happier to have called home over the past six decades.

“We’re really proud of Tanners Creek and what it’s done over the years,” Wyatt said. “And we’re so proud of all the people who made everything happen.”

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