By Jef Rietsma
He probably didn’t think so at the time, but losing his job at a Three Rivers paper mill 70 years ago was may have been the best thing ever to happen to Chet Dobrowolski.
Now 91 and living on the Park Township farm in St. Joseph County where he was born and raised, Dobrowolski said he had a good experience at Eddy Paper Co.
But it closed quickly.
Just out of the Army, Dobrowolski said he had been employed there only six months before he and a few hundred others found themselves out of a job with the company’s shutdown.
“The next day, my two brothers and I went on up to Vicksburg. We had heard about the mill there but didn’t know much about it,” Dobrowolski said. “The three of us met with (personnel manager) Lloyd Campbell and he introduced us to Max Bardeen,” manager at Lee Paper Mill in Vicksburg. “Before I knew it, we were hired, right there on the spot. That’s just how things were done back then.”
Though his older brother did not pass the physical due to a hernia and wound up working elsewhere, Dobrowolski said he was told to show up the next day at midnight and ask for John.
Dobrowolski laughed and said he was a bit apprehensive because his directions were so vague. But he showed up when he was supposed to, found John, unaware at the time that he would go on to have a lifelong friendship with John Goldsmith.
Blessed with a solid work ethic as a result of growing up on a farm and continuing to farm most of his adult life, Dobrowolski said he worked steadily and was a reliable, savvy employee. He worked several jobs at the mill and recalls being able to do just about any task at the plant.
“I was pretty fortunate to have a job that paid well and at the same time a schedule that allowed me to keep working the farm,” he said. “I kept busy … I was single at the time and then some folks at the mill set me up on a blind date.”
Her name was Bernice Tenar. For their first date, they went to what was then a new bowling alley in Vicksburg. Dobrowolski said he never imagined he’d find a wife through his employment at the mill, but Tenar had a number of relatives who worked there. Her Polish heritage, as a matter of fact, appealed to Dobrowolski.
Fate, of course, is what brought them together, starting the day Dobrowolski and others lost their jobs in Three Rivers. He wonders how different his life would be had he not pursued a job at the mill.
“I really never had any reason to go into Vicksburg. I went to high school in Three Rivers and when I needed to go to town I’d go into Three Rivers, so I can’t imagine any circumstances that Bernie and I would have ever met otherwise,” he said. “Life sure takes some funny turns, doesn’t it?”
He had planned to work just 10 years at the mill and then go back to farming full time. Dobrowolski said getting married and eventually starting a family changed his plans, as the mill’s pay was lucrative. The couple have three children.
Dobrowolski remembers for a while working in an area called the coater room. He said it was an important job as it was a part of developing the photographic papers and coatings used by Polaroid for photographs made with its instant cameras that produced self-developed pictures.
He would go on to serve as superintendent of the finishing department. In all, Dobrowolski worked at the mill 39 years and retired in 1987. He said he wanted to retire earlier but his wife made him work a few extra years to help cover the expense of his youngest daughter’s wedding.
“I put in a lot of time there, often seven days a week, but it gave me a good living,” Dobrowolski said. “I was retired by the time the mill closed, which was something that caught me off guard. But I did come back one last time and saw everybody that was still there. It tugged at my heart because the mill meant so much to me, and to Vicksburg as well. I loved the mill and I was so fortunate to be there at what were its best years, when it expanded all the time.”
Dobrowolski said he was also fortunate to work during a generation when fellow workers formed lifelong bonds. He said he is proud that he knew the name of every employee, those who were married and how many kids they had.
He said the family environment at the mill was not an exaggeration.
“We used to have dances in our barn here at my farm … I’d take all the machinery out of the barn and we had some fine times there,” he said. “We’d get a little pressure from those Polish folks in Vicksburg to host the dances more frequently than what we did because it was always a good time.”
While sharing details about his memories at the mill, Dobrowolski recalled a situation where a man he was to relieve on a paper machine was awaiting a phone call from his wife, who was due to go into labor. The call came while Dobrowolski was sound asleep and he got up, went into work to cover his co-worker’s shift.
“That’s just what we did back then. The union wasn’t as strong as it would later get so we could do things like that,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we, my gosh? His wife was about to have a baby, so of course you step in to help him out.”
Dobrowolski said he hasn’t seen the plant since work started to redevelop the mill into a mixed-use development. He is optimistic the endeavor will prosper and is excited that the community icon will have new life.
“We all know how many lives were touched by that mill. My story is just one of many.”