OLYMPIA - It was a time to feast on crab legs, spring rolls, cherry pie and other wonderful food.
And it was a time for a group of former timber workers-turned-college students to celebrate their final stretch in worker-retraining programs at South Puget Sound Community College.
The luncheon Tuesday in the college’s Percival Dining Room was organized by Robbie Davis, 58, of the Satsop Valley near Elma. He helped prepare the meal as part of his coursework for SPSCC’s culinary arts program and picked up the tab for about 25 of his former co-workers, teachers and classmates and college staff members.
“We all worked together and went to classes together,” said Davis, who worked for Weyerhaeuser’s Aberdeen sawmill for 38 years. “This is a last big hurrah.”
“Most of us have been together forever,” added Charles Mudgett, 56, of Montesano.
In January 2009, Weyerhaeuser shut down two of its plants in Aberdeen. About 220 people lost their jobs.
“We just came to work one day, and they said, ‘Go up to the meeting room,’” recalled Davis. “They had decided to close the mill.”
As part of the Trade Act, the workers were eligible for federally funded retraining programs, according to Lyn Sharp, director of admissions, registration and the worker-retraining program at SPSCC. The benefits included tuition, books, transportation and special tools or clothing needed for the programs, she said.
Davis said he wanted to host an event so his former co-workers, teachers and others could celebrate and show that “these programs work, and the dollars are well-spent.” But it also was a chance to say goodbye; some of the retrained workers probably are going to need to relocate to find jobs in their new fields, he said.
SPSCC serves about 345 students in its retraining programs, Sharp said. About 50 are from Weyerhaeuser’s shuttered sawmill and veneer plant and other timber-related jobs in the area.
“They bring a wealth of information and a wealth of experience,” said business teacher Karen Halpern. “It’s such a joy to have returning students.”
Some of the biggest adjustments came during the first few weeks of college, said Davis, a 1971 Aberdeen High School graduate.
“I hadn’t been in school in almost 40 years,” he said. “Everything is on a computer now.”
The workers landed in a variety of programs, including auto repair, medical assisting, welding and culinary arts, Sharp said.
They joined workers from other industries that took an economic beating in recent years, including construction, banking and newspapers, according to Sharp.
Because they’re older, many of the former timber workers have served as informal mentors to younger students, she said.
“They have a very good work ethic,” Sharp added. “They start something, and they want to stick with it.”
Ray Calica, 55, of Shelton was a lead saw filer at Weyerhaeuser’s Aberdeen plant, where he worked for 35 years. He said he didn’t like school when he was younger and ended up getting a GED.
Now, he’s preparing to graduate from SPSCC’s computer aided drafting and design tech program with a 3.98 grade-point average.
College has changed his life, Calica said.
“I can’t get enough of it, now,” he added. “There are so many things I want to learn about.”
Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 firstname.lastname@example.org