Preserving the Stories, Realizing the Dream
Note: This post is the first part of a two-part series. Read Part 2.
To donate General Motors-related items to the Legacy Center, email Dona Dutcher or call 608-290-1769.
Over my morning coffee, I routinely scroll through my Facebook feed and find a live video from Lucy Beckord at the Venue. WMTV Channel 15’s Amelia Jones cheerfully smiles while reporting on the Legacy Center Preview and Announcement event. How exciting to see Lucy’s enthusiasm as she captures part of Amelia’s piece before being interviewed. As I watch, I become more eager to attend this amazingly meaningful event … history in the making!
Downtown, the Rock River flows swiftly in the cool and crisp, late September air. Coincidentally, the parking lot is only feet from where the Legacy Center’s complex will be built. It’s a bit of a walk to the event, but a good sign that there are many guests already there. I cross busy Court Street approaching the Venue.
Looking up, I am pleasantly surprised. There she is! The 1923 antique, pale yellow, Janesville-made Chevy. My heart skips a beat and a grin brightens my face. I pause in my tracks lifting my phone for a photo. She is always picture ready. This beautiful Chevrolet was restored and donated by retired GM employee, Gary Mawhinney, to the Rock County Historical Society. Here she’s proudly displayed.
This car symbolizes so much, the least of which is my own personal connection to the Rock County Historical Society as History Teller. Seeing her at our various RCHS events is a beautiful reminder of this community’s roots, of how far we’ve come, of hardships endured and of the new renaissance emerging in our economy and in our downtown. How sweet that this lovely reflection of our past will find new purpose, on loan from RCHS, displayed in the new BHCCU Legacy Center! I pass her respectfully, like a sacred statue in a place of worship, and make my way inside.
After climbing the stairs to the second floor, I hear the joyful sound of voices and laughter. The enticing smell of meatballs and other delicious hors d’oeuvres wafts down long hallway. My feet quietly step across the soft carpet through a stately door frame, and the excitement in the air is palpable.
BHCCU employees and board members are bustling about as folks gather in the spacious area of the Venue that was once a church sanctuary. People are eager to hear the announcements by Sherri Stumpf, BHCCU CEO; Dona Dutcher, Legacy Center Director; and City Manager, Mark Freitag. The TV cameras are positioned and the crowd is growing.
Huge signs and small signs, various tools, and an array of items recovered from the closed plant line the walls. Today’s guests gather to see them, to reminisce, to remember. A sneak peek into a sample of the Legacy Center’s collections.
A dingy, blue-striped pair of coveralls catches my eye. And a dark brown jacket with a union logo embroidered on the front hangs lonely in the corner. But these are just the clothes, no hard-working man inside that jacket … just as the plant was only an empty building after those doors shut in 2008. The soul of the working class of this community has sadly floated around … wondering, waiting.
The memories of the long hours, physical work, sweat and sometimes blood, clanking machinery, of hard hats, ear plugs and steel toed boots, treasured break times, punch cards, sore feet, long-awaited paychecks and happy hour camaraderie have been trapped in the minds and hearts of our people. The plant was their livelihood, the plant was like a family. It was their everything … until that announcement came.
Now, nearly 100 years after General Motors opened, and nearly one year after the announcement that the property was sold, there is a new announcement. Finally, there will be a home for this soul, a home for those memories. Each of these artifacts tells a story. All of those stories make our history, our community, who we were and who we are today.
The items and story collecting for the Legacy Center will showcase an endless stream of varied experiences. What a wonderful way to preserve our precious history!
My quest here is to find those who are paving the way for gathering these items and harvesting the stories. In an interesting way, this is three layers of storytelling; the tales of GM workers told to the people creating the Legacy Center, whose stories are now told to me. And I’m happy to share some of them with you!
A quote on the BHCCU Legacy Center Preview invitation speaks to my heart:
“Everyone has a story. Our lives and our communities are shaped by our unique experiences and our histories. Too often the beautiful, ordinary stories that comprise our everyday lives are never shared. We strive to change that.”
Sherri Stumpf, BHCCU CEO
How did the conversations on the Legacy Center begin in the boardroom?
Back in 1965, the credit union was originally formed through General Motors and Fisher Body. I got here in 2011, right at the peak of the crisis, and lots of things were troubling in Janesville.
Folks would ask me, “Really, you came here for a job? Because nobody comes here for a job.” There was a lot of sadness and there were hard feelings after the GM plant left. The stories that people told made it seem like they were really missing something with each other. That always sticks in your mind.
When plans were announced last year that they were going to demolish the building, and that it had been sold, I was watching all of the social media comments, people’s anxiety over it.
At that same time, I was talking to the board about a long-term strategic plan for the organization. One of the core tenets of BHCCU is giving back to the community. We were doing this building project for ourselves and I suggested that we include a portion of that for the Legacy Center where we could pay homage to the families and the people of General Motors and Fisher Body, that created the credit union.
We’re the last vestige left of that organization. I said, “If it’s not us, who would it be?” We are all excited about it. We have a number of people on the board who are former GM employees or who have family who worked there. It seems like everybody in this town has somebody who was part of the plant.
With everything that we do for the community, it was really important to us to give something significant back. We were planning our own future and our own legacy, what we’re going to do moving forward. And it just fit!
Tell me about the collections.
We’ve seen hundreds of people through here, bringing items. They’re cleaning out things, and finding stuff that meant a lot to someone. It’s just been incredible, and I’m not even a history buff. But, it sucks you in because, all of a sudden, all of the items, all of the artifacts, are somebody’s story.
When you look at what happened during World War II, all that shut down and they became an armament organization. All the things that were produced there during that time, it was really special.
There was a guy who called us from Janesville, whose neighbor had passed away. He had all of the original tools that they had made themselves to make all the different machinery. He had left them to his neighbor, and his neighbor said, “I don’t have a use for them. But, I know he was so attached to these, we want you to have them.”
Over 150 men from Janesville worked at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago – A Century of Progress. Each person made $7 per day and was issued a necktie. We’re looking for the neckties. Because we’d like to have the necktie display. If anybody had any of those, please email Dona Dutcher or call 608-290-1769.
I will say it has been fascinating! Every day people are coming in.
So how will you go through all of this stuff? I imagine it’s only going to grow.
Yes, it’s a lot. We already have four garages full. J.P. Cullen has the big things that we took out of the plant: the beams, the girders and some of the large pieces of equipment and things that we plan on incorporating into the design. We have a garage full of the smaller things that we took out of the plant ourselves, things that were given to us. We have General Motors working with us to give us anything that they might have removed that we would want.
What sort of displays will you have?
Part of the plan that we’re looking into is having virtual reality headsets. There was film footage shot inside the plant of the assembly line. We want to give younger kids a real idea of what the plant was like, just how big it was. They’ll be able to put these goggles on, take a walk through and see the plant.
Are you going to display the 1923 car that Gary Mawhinney donated to RCHS?
Yes! That and the Samson Tractor would be full-time displays. We’ll probably have a third vehicle and possibly and forth, which we would trade in and out.
What other interactive displays are you planning for the Legacy Center?
We’ll have various rotating exhibits. It’s important to do that.
We’re also going to have a memorial wall that will stretch around the patio. You can see that at the end of the building drawing. The wall will have bricks in it that people can purchase as a memorial for a family member or for others.
We’re going to have one section where people can create their own family tree and find out how many relatives they had who worked in the plant. We obtained from General Motors the lists of all of the employees that worked there and in what years. Dona Dutcher, our Legacy Center Curator, went through hers and she had 14 family members who had worked at GM!
Are you going to work together with the Rock County Historical Society on this project?
Yes, we will. There will be a timeline section, so we’re going to work with RCHS to try to mock that up. And we’ll have a lot of photographs.
We’ll even take photos of some of the items, as some will want to keep their particular artifact. But everything is of importance to us, so we’ll do that research.
Can people donate GM photographs as well as artifacts?
Yes, they can.
How will you collect the stories?
Almost everybody in town can tell you a General Motors story and they’re really interesting. We’ll have a booth set up where people can come and tell their story, where we can either audio or video record them.
We have been approached by a lot of people, where this is something they believe in. They want the future generations to understand what it was like to work there, to build the kind of relationships they had.
Tell me about the time capsule idea.
We’ll be creating various GM time capsules. Things will be stored in big tubes that we will sink into the ground along the river walk. On top of the tube will be a way to access information about that time capsule. We might even have a phone app that helps people read or hear the information.
The time capsules will be placed on the riverwalk from Court Street all the way to the Janesville Performing Arts Center. As you walk along, you’re going to see these bronze plates that will say things like, “The Women of GM,” or “The Skilled Labor of GM,” or “The 1920s.”
We have committees creating those time capsules and everything that will go in them. They won’t be opened for another hundred years. Everything is kind of going in hundred-year increments.
Is all of this planning only being done by BHCCU?
Yes! We’re putting it on ourselves and we’ll cover the cost of it. But, people can certainly make donations.
What happens next?
We will continue to collect these pieces, of course, but much of our focus now will be on collecting stories. There are a number of people who are getting older. There are members who are leaving the area for one reason or another. We want to make sure we capture their stories, so that’s what we’ll really be focusing on.
The original cornerstone of the plant was set in 1919, so we’re going to reset that same cornerstone as the cornerstone of the Legacy Center in 2019, 100 years later.
They’ll set the 1919 brick in first and we’ll do a groundbreaking ceremony. We’ll probably have that in conjunction with our membership appreciation picnic. We’ll have a big party from festival street all the way around. This year we had about 1,200 people come. It’s a big event!
We will also have a fundraiser, a kind of kick-off event.
Have you come up against some controversy?
Of course, some people say they don’t want to honor GM. But, it was what made this community special. So, whether or not you agree that there should be any kind of homage paid to GM, you have to agree that it created a very special community. There are Facebook pages committed to the people who worked there.
Some people have asked us, “If it was going to be for the people of Janesville, why wouldn’t that include Parker Pen, too?” My answer to that is it’s really because of our own BHCCU connection that we’re doing this.
Did you ever think it would be possible?
When I first came here, people didn’t feel like it was going to be possible. And yet, if you looked at our history, it would tell you that it was going to be possible. It would be possible because of the strength of the people and their desire to revitalize the community. So, I knew it would happen.
It’s real in my mind. You know, to see the look on people’s faces when they realize that this is happening … it makes it all worthwhile.
At the party, the day after the Preview event, the people who approached me were just so excited by everything that we’re doing. They want it to be downtown, and just want a place to go.
The whole complex is going to be called Reflections Plaza, because we think that it’ll be a really neat place to come to sit and reflect. It will be a place where you can look at the river and think about your ancestors and what they must have gone through.
Dona Dutcher, BHCCU Legacy Center Director
My dad was a concrete contractor. He had his own business. My mom helped out and they ran the business together. My dad did a lot of work at the plant through the years, but I didn’t have any immediate relatives who worked down there.
I have six sisters. While we were growing up, my mom was sick, so my sisters pick up the missing pieces. My older sister, Linda, who is definitely my biggest influence, used to sing me union songs for bedtime lullabies. Yeah, when you grew up singing “You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union!” That shows how much it’s been part of my life!
My husband, Brad Dutcher, had worked at the GM plant since 1986. He was heavily involved in the union. So, it was a perfect fit for him and me, in that we believed in the idea of social justice, fighting for the underdog, fair labor practices and civil rights. It’s just something that has always been important to both of us.
Brad was first elected to Local 95 leadership in 1993 as Bargaining Representative. He served in this role for six years. Brad was elected Vice President in 2001, where he remained until 2008 when he was elected Local Union President. He was the president of the local when the plant closing was announced.
He was co-chairman with Tim Cullen when they tried to get a new product here. They worked with the state and federal government.
For me, personally, the connection that made this Legacy Center deeper would be my work with Blackhawk. I’ve been there for 17 years, so, we are intertwined in that way.
How did the idea of a Legacy Center come about?
It’s really been such a collaborative effort, and something I’ve envisioned happening for a while now.
In 2015 or ’16, when I moved from the Delavan branch to the Milwaukee Street branch in Janesville, I knew I wanted to do something similar, but on a smaller scale. I was put in charge of remodeling the branch and I had put together an “industrial” interior design, using some of the items from the GM plant.
There was space behind the tellers for a display I had secured one of the GM entrance signs and thought of hanging it there. I had wanted to have large black and white photos, storyboards and such, to honor the workers. Many of the GM retirees were our customers.
When I went into the leadership program, someone else took over the Milwaukee Street branch and they took a completely different way with the remodel.
Then, when the BHCCU strategic planning was going on with the CEO and the board, the GM legacy conversations continued. As a result of the BHCCU strategic planning, the Legacy Center has become something bigger than I could have ever dreamed of!
The concept for the center’s design came out of that, and it’s really going to be done right. We have had a lot of support in this whole process.
Where are you now with the planning?
Items keep pouring in. I bought some archival materials, and I’m at a point where I really need an assistant.
Things are being stored in my office, my house, in a building I own in Milton and in another 10′ x 30′ storage unit. We also have things down at the UAW Hall. The spaces are filling up! There are numerous smaller items plus some large items, like benches and picnic tables.
I can’t even grasp the 10,000 square feet, because I think in one moment it seems large and another moment it’s really nothing. There’s so much we’re gathering from GM folks!
I’m still bartering. A couple of guys from Tennessee had been to the auction and purchased a bunch of GM things. In exchange for helping them load and unload items, they told me I could have what I wanted. So, I went home and changed clothes so I could dig through it all and was able to get all kinds of gears. We’ll be able to use these items in a sculpture, in upcycling things for the community. I even found an old WWII ammunition box with rope handles. It was going to the dump, but I’m so glad we have it!
So, it’s all about collections now. We have to get these things while they’re still available.
Tell me about that special item you retrieved from GM.
On one of our trips into the plant, we were able to recover the Veterans Board, which is a bulletin board, a locked cabinet, which was beautifully framed with a POW flag and an American flag. When we were trying to get it down, the site manager said, “You know, I think Dutch made that.” At the time, I didn’t know that! When I got home I told my husband that we were able to get it out. He said, “Did you know I made that?” It was kind of emotional.
When I walked into the UAW Hall on Oct. 17 to see the play Sweat by Lynn Nottage, I looked around and saw the table and the podium that my husband, Brad, had made. I saw those things and thought about how Brad made those. In the play Sweat, there is a monologue about a woman’s grandfather, who worked at the plant and had done some beautiful woodworking. That really hit home for me.
He had also made the doorframe from the old entrance, but it had too much water damage to save it.
Tell me about the story collecting.
I had just been at a UAW Retiree meeting at the hall a while back, and there was a statement made that they used to lose one retiree every month, and now it’s averaging 20. There’s a whole generation that we’re losing. So, it’s time to get those stories, as many as we can. We know time is of the essence.
We’re still in the planning stages, but my vision is to be able to have an area that just focuses on people’s stories. I’d love an area, like a booth, where people can just come in and record their story. We have no idea what great stories are out there and all that the people have to share.
I was thinking of my own family, of how you can have so many in one family on a “genealogy tree” of sorts.
Yesterday we interviewed people all day for a documentary that’s being made. We talked to Nurse Nancy (Nancy Nienhuis). She was mother to so many at GM. (Click here to read Nancy’s story.)
We had more people who are retirees who are sharing their stories. There will be a documentary of the demolition and they will be giving us a copy.
Are you excited about the Legacy Center?
Yes! I’m excited and I’m exhausted, as well. Exhaustedly excited, if I can make up that phrase.
I love that everybody wants to help make this happen; Rock County Historical Society, the Hedberg Public Library, everyone wants to preserve the history of our GM legacy.
Anywhere that has a really strong downtown area, you can’t help but feel that you belong there, you feel comfortable and you want to be a part of it! I hope we can make the downtown flow along, like the river, through all the different attractions from the Rock County Historical Society, through the downtown, the new park, the Legacy Center and the Janesville Performing Arts Center.
A beautiful downtown pulls people in, gives them a feeling of home, of community pride.
Do you feel the Legacy Center will help people heal?
Yes. People are just so happy to know that these items that once belonged to their loved ones will be out there in a lasting way to help others keep their memories alive. They know just what it represents and people are feeling good that it’s going to happen!
Lucy Beckord, BHCCU Branch Manager & Public Relations Coordinator
Are you excited about the Legacy Center?
What does this mean to you?
I remember hearing and feeling the sadness when GM was going down. We were able to announce this back in December, and there was this incredible feeling of excitement. With the Legacy Center, we’re saying, “Your memories, your feelings and all of that pride that you had is going to continue on because it matters.”
It’s about healing, moving forward. It mattered to all of us, not just the people who worked there, but all of us. Because we’re all connected somehow. And this Legacy Center connects all of us.
Tell me about the donations we’re seeing.
This is just a taste of what the Legacy Center is going to be. These are items were donated and put out for the public to see. This is what we’re doing. We’re asking, “What do you have?” And they’re willing to share that with us. They’re saying, “I trust you. I kept these for all these years, and I’m entrusting you to display them and share them.”
I get emotional every time I talked about it. Every time.
Tammy McCaslin-Krebs, BHCCU Director of Membership
What is your involvement in the planning for the Legacy Center?
I’m the Director of Membership Development at Blackhawk Community Credit Union, so anything that they might need me to help with I’m there behind the scenes. If Dona Dutcher needs help with anything, I’m happy to help her, whatever it might be.
How is the Legacy Center significant to you?
My father worked at General Motors. He was paint superintendent when he retired. He worked long, long days. I remember how he would come home to the dinner table and start talking about things that were going on at General Motors. When my brother graduated high school, he started working at GM.
When the plant looked like it might close, we lost my brother in a move to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
What was it like for you when you heard the announcement of the closing?
My whole life I would pray that GM wouldn’t close. When it was announced, it was devastating for us, just like it was for so many people. A lot of friends and other family members worked there. To know that their livelihood was going to be affected was hard. And the trickle down of all of those incomes not being in Janesville any longer was very sad.
I was lucky. As a little girl, my dad would occasionally take me into the plant. I remember I had such pride, that this is where my dad worked and this is also where my brother worked. My Dad supported our family really well with that income. We had so many neighbors working there.
When the plant was starting to be torn down, my heart ached for them. It had to be heartbreaking to think that as you walked past where you worked for 30, 40, or more years, that it just wasn’t there anymore. It’s sad.
Are you excited about this?
Yes. Today, to see that there’s going to be a place where everyone can come and see what General Motors was all about, to see these things, and be excited with their family … it gives people a chance to say, “This is what I did.”
My coworker’s dad worked at General Motors with my father. He was flying high when he showed us the time clock. There was a book next to it with employees’ names in it. And we opened it up to see his name and his phone number, and he was thrilled to show it to us. The pride that you could see in him explaining all this was priceless.
This Legacy Center is going to help a lot of people. It’s like Christmas today! Really, that’s what it feels like.
Lisa Palma, BHCCU Chief Experience Officer
What is your involvement in the Legacy Center planning?
I’m the Chief Experience Officer of the credit union, and I work very closely with Sherri. My job is to take the dreams and visions of the board and Sherri, and help to make them come true. We do that through marketing and advertising and branding, and then through our branches and our retail network. It is an incredible privilege and honor.
This event came about because we have a great team. This is really because of Dona Dutcher, who curated all of these items, and made this beautiful space here at the Preview and Announcement. We couldn’t be more honored to have her as a teammate! I feel like my role is to bring the talented people we have together and let them tell the story.
So many sad things happened to folks, so it’s an honor to be able to tell their stories in a positive way, to do something that helps people heal. The goal is to help them feel good about their past and to be able to share it with their family and their friends.
“As a result of the BHCCU Strategic Planning, the Legacy Center has become something bigger than I could have ever dreamed of…it’s really going to be done right.” ~ Dona Dutcher