Trucks and friendships built at Ford plant

In 2006 when Ford announced plans to shut down the St. Paul plant within two years, many people were predictably upset.

Shortly after the news broke, a disgruntled worker at the plant hatched a scheme to get back at the company by deliberately making mistakes on the assembly line. "What we need to do is run crappy units," the man told the group of a dozen or so workers who had gathered around one day.

Terry Dinderman, a retired Ford worker, was also listening to the saboteur. When the man finished, Dinderman took center stage to give a rebuttal.

"A lot of of you have seen me around here, but a lot of you don't know my history," Dinderman began. "I spent 30 years down here already. This is a good company."

Dinderman of North St. Paul reminded the group they'd received advanced notice of the closure, as well as transfer opportunities, buyout packages and training for transitions.

"If you listen to this cowhand over here, you won't have to worry for two years (about closing) because they'll shutter before that," Dinderman said. Slowly, the audience began to nod in assent.

"You think about what I've said," Dinderman said, "and you build good products up until the very last day and you walk out tall and you walk out proud."

On Dec. 16 of this year, the conveyer belts finally came to a halt -- three years later than planned. Dinderman, along with fellow North St. Paul retiree Wayne Kuhlman, joined a crowd of past and present workers watching as the last Ranger pickup rolled down the line.

Few people would have as authoritative a perspective on Ford's legacy as Dinderman or Kuhlman: when they walked out of the plant for the last time after the closing ceremonies, they left with a combined 91 years inside the plant.

From window cranks to accelerators
Dinderman moved to North St. Paul in 1960 with his parents after graduating high school earlier that year. He joined the Navy for two years active duty and served in the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis onboard the U.S.S. Newport News in 1962.

After returning to Minnesota, Dinderman married Cheryl Davis, who was the sister of one of his shipmates, and followed in his father's footsteps selling sewing machines for Singer.

After being promoted to management, however, Dinderman says he became frustrated by an epidemic of unnecessary paperwork and broken promises at the company. He started doing all his work into the mornings so he could spend afternoons looking for a new job.

When Dinderman returned home on a Thursday evening in May 1965, Cheryl told him that a manager from Ford had called about his application and offered him a job starting Friday or the following Monday. Dinderman turned around and headed back out the door, telling his wife not to wait up. He spent the night filling out his remaining reports for Singer, then promptly reported for duty at Ford the next morning.

Dinderman says he showed up to build vehicles without much mechanical know-how.

"I had changed oil and that was about it," Dinderman says. "My dad was a salesman, so he was on the road from Monday to Friday, so there really was no father-son garage work."

His first day in the auto assembly plant there was a blood drive, however, which required Dinderman to fill in on numerous jobs as the workers stepped off the line to donate blood. His final task of the day was hanging hoods, which he found particularly challenging.

"I was so doggone short I almost had to jump," Dinderman recalls.

At the end of his first 10-hour day, Dinderman returned home exhausted but satisfied in his career change. The following Monday he began his regular job in the trim department, where the Galaxie sedans received interior mechanisms like locks, door handles and window cranks.

Workers were granted six minutes relief for every hour worked, and Dinderman, like many others, would work six hours to accrue 36 minutes off. He used his breaks to explore the plant, watching workers in other roles and asking questions about their tasks.

Dinderman's job had come as part of a mass hiring of temporary workers Ford did each summer to cope with regulars going on vacation. By mid-season, he came as close as seventh on the list of potential layoffs, but when internal shifts led to an open job building accelerators, Dinderman was the only one able to take over because he'd studied the position on his breaks.

Dinderman never was laid off by Ford, although he did spend two month stocking shelves at small grocery store on County Road B in Roseville when the workers went on strike in 1967.

Becoming a supervisor
Terry and Cheryl bought their current home in North St. Paul in December 1966. He began carpooling with other Ford workers from the area, which is how he got to know Kuhlman.

Dinderman's willingness to study different tasks paid off in 1974 when he was asked to take a supervisor position back in the trim department. He quickly built a reputation as a troubleshooter, willing to move around to different areas and tackle problems.

"I was one of those guys who wanted to know as much about the vehicles as possible, so I'd volunteer to go into trouble zones and I'd straighten them out," Dinderman says.

In 1978 when the plant switched manufacturing to pickup trucks exclusively, Dinderman was transferred to the chassis department, which was considered a terminal assignment because the motor line it contained was so complex.

Dinderman, however, refused to be held in one place. He became the first person to transfer out of chassis when he moved to the swinging frame line, where workers hooked up drive shafts, transmissions and transfer cases.

"I'd get my zone running nice and smooth, and then I'd tell 'em 'Hey, I'm bored,'" Dinderman explains.

After a stint in body drop, where the exterior was applied the vehicle frame, Dinderman put in for another transfer to the quality control department. It would turn out to be Dinderman's last transfer with Ford, as he spent the nine years preceding his 1994 retirement in pre-delivery inspections, managing a department of 60 people.

"You had to be able to juggle 10 balls in the air all the time," Dinderman says. "The line went 10 hours; you were doing 12 hours or better."

Won't be here long
Although Wayne Kuhlman was saddened by the shut down, he was hardly caught off guard.

"From the day I walked into the building in 1967 they said, 'This place won't be here very long,'" Kuhlman says with a chuckle.

The warnings didn't bother him much, however, because when Kuhlman first started at the plant spraying primer onto the vehicles, he didn't plan on sticking around.

"I originally thought I'd be there 30 days," Kuhlman says.

But 30 days came and went, and after a while he adjusted his sights for the 10-year mark for the sake of his pension.

"Never dreamt I'd be in that building 44 years," Kuhlman says.

In that time Kuhlman, who moved to North St. Paul in 1972, raised four children and owned five Ford Rangers, and with the help of his discount his family bought 11 more of the pickups.

Like Dinderman, Kuhlman was open to whatever work came his way.

"Any task that we needed help on, they just kind of called on me and I just did the best of my ability and did what was required of me," Kuhlman says.

He describes the work as tedious and demanding, recalling how he stayed on his feet 10 hours a day, six days a week, and asked permission just to go to the restroom. During a period of increased production, Kuhlman once worked nearly 93 hours on the assembly line in a week.

But despite the grueling nature of life on the line, Kuhlman says he was always treated fairly at the Ford plant, and it provided him with an honest career with which he was able to provide for his family.

Equally important to Kuhlman were the relationships he forged in the plant, which he says were a natural consequence of spending so much time with co-workers.

"Ford was really your life," he says.

Kuhlman now meets with a group of Ford retirees for breakfast in Minneapolis on the first Tuesday of each month, and he says even after the plant has been wiped off the 125-acre site along the Mississippi River, the friendships and memories made inside will live on.

Semi-retired
Though Dinderman spent 30 years inside the assembly plant by the time he retired from Ford and Kuhlman spent 32, both men jumped at the chance to return as representatives for vendors whose products were used in the vehicles.

Dinderman recalls his conversation with the recruiter in which his new job was described to him: 15 hours a week talking about the products with executives, dropping by with doughnuts for the workers and taking managers out for lunch at least once a week, with the occasional golf game thrown in.

"I says 'How much are you paying?'" Dinderman recalls. "He told me, and I says, 'Well, you want to double that up, you got yourself a man.'"

For Kulhman, the rep work gave him new insight on Ford's operations to add to his decades of experience.

"I only knew Ford's side of the business," Kulhman says. "I got to see both sides of the manufacturing."

End of an era
Even after a half a lifetime with Ford, Dinderman says it's hard to accept the plant's closure and eventual demolition.

"I'll tell you when it'll really sadden you is when you drive by and there is no building, no nothing," Dinderman says.

That point was driven home for Dinderman during a recent conversation with some employees he supervised at Ford.

"The difficult part for them is the fact that they can't drive by the building and say 'Well, here's where your mom used to work, or your grandma,'" Dinderman explains. "It's no longer an institution."

Dinderman and Kuhlman sympathize with younger workers with families, but agree that Ford has been as fair as possible in the inevitable closing of its oldest plant.

"The vehicle, frankly, has not really changed," Dinderman admits.

The Ranger will now be produced in Thailand and sold overseas. The F-150 will become the smallest pickup Ford sells domestically.

While he understands the reasoning, Kuhlman says he's saddened by the demise of the well-paying, blue-collar jobs the Ford plant represented.

"The common man can't go find labor work and make a wage today because it doesn't exist," Kuhlman says.

During his time at Ford, Kuhlman says he watched as fathers were joined by sons on the assembly line.

"It was like your father or something working on a farm his whole life, and then the farm being taken away," Kuhlman says.

Dinderman, who turns 70 next month, will take the closing as his cue to retire for good. On the other hand, Kuhlman, 65, recently earned a Class A driver's license and plans to drive a semi-truck for his brother's Elkhorn, Ind.-based business.

"That was my lifelong dream: before Ford, I was going to be a truck driver," Kuhlman says.

Although Ford will work with the city of St. Paul to make sure every possible trace of the plant is expunged, Dinderman and Kuhlman each have their own collection of indelible memories to commemorate the building, with some leading to reflection and others just good for laughs.

On a recent trip to the plant before the closing, Dinderman encountered the worker who five years before ranted about Ford being unfair to workers. Dinderman teased the man for not taking any of the buyouts Ford had offered leading up the end.

"'You must like it better than you talked that one day,'" Dinderman jibed. "I don't let people forget crap like that."

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7825.