Whatever happened to … the front-page Ford plant worker

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It was a powerful portrait of despair splashed across the front page: An auto worker clutching the Norfolk Ford plant’s chain-link fence, arms spread wide as his body sagged and head hung low.

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The crucifixion of America’s manufacturing everyman.

But Richard White also spoke that day about the bombshell announcement the Ford Motor Co. had just made: Within two years, the automaker would close its 81-year-old assembly plant in Norfolk, one that employed more than 2,400 people and had a payroll of $160 million.

Through tears and with a quaking voice, White warned what would happen to Ford’s thousands of employees. Families would be forced out of their homes. Husbands and wives would buckle under the stress and split up. Ex-workers would kill themselves.

Those things befell some, especially in the months and years right after the plant closed, White said.

But not him. A decade after the announcement, White is still in his Chesapeake house. He’s still married to his wife. He’s the owner of a thriving construction business: Above Board Drywall.

And he’s still alive.

White, now 57, keeps a picture of the April 14, 2006, Virginian-Pilot front page on his phone and shows people if it comes up in conversation.

Truth be told, things hadn’t been going well for White when the announcement was made that he would lose his job of more than 20 years. It was one more thing that, all of a sudden, wasn’t going right for him. He was plagued by problems with his family, stress and alcohol.

The specter of losing his livelihood was a wake-up call, he said. Over the next year, he found Jesus Christ and was saved, stopped drinking, got his anger under control and got closer with his wife.

“It helps put things in perspective about what’s important and what’s not when you get the rug snatched out from under you,” he said.

Still, he didn’t quite believe the plant was going to close, even after it did. Rumors swirled that Ford would reopen or that Toyota would swoop in and jump-start things. But none of that happened.

White compared the plant’s closure to a loved one dying. Even after it happens, you think it might un-happen, that things will go back to the way they were, and everything will be OK.

“It takes a long, long time to really, really realize they’re gone,” he said.

He thought about sticking with Ford – moving up to Michigan so he could work at the company’s plant in Dearborn. But he and his wife, Cathy, had just renovated their home, and their baby grandson was in the area. Plus, his wife didn’t want to go.

So he decided to leave Ford and expand what had been a part-time drywalling gig into a full-fledged enterprise. Cathy thought of the new company’s name: an homage to help and blessings from heaven, or “Above.”

White wasn’t alone, he said. A lot of Ford guys got into construction afterward. One is a plumber in Virginia Beach; another is a toolmaker for a shipyard. They both enjoy the post-Ford lives they’ve made for themselves, he said.

For White, business is so good, he’s trying to figure out ways to keep offers to bid from coming in. He said he wouldn’t mind expanding, but he’s got a crew of three full-time workers and one part-timer whom he trusts to be in people’s homes.

White’s worried if he brings someone new on, that could change.

He misses the people at the Ford plant and said if he’d stuck with the company, he’d be eligible to retire with 30 years under his belt. Still, he doesn’t regret sticking around Hampton Roads. No more long hours if he doesn’t want to – and no more time clock.

“I’m my own my own boss now. Long lunch, short lunch, no lunch. Freedom, which is almost priceless.

“I’ve got such a good thing going.”

THE VIRIGINIAN PILOT/TNS

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