The year Roger Journell began working at General Electric in Salem, Elvis Presley scored a hit with “All Shook Up.” The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, beginning the Space Race. And to the horror of New York baseball fans, the Brooklyn Dodgers picked up and moved to Los Angeles.
All that happened in 1957. The Dodgers remain in California, but Elvis and the Soviet Union are relics on history’s junk pile. Nobody can say that about Journell, now 81. He still works at GE.
His last day is Friday. And above all else, this is what he wants the Roanoke Valley to know:
“I am not retiring,” Journell insisted. “I’m being laid off.”
This month, the multinational corporation wraps up a long wind-down at its Salem plant, which opened in 1955 and for decades has provided some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the Roanoke Valley.
For 64 years, those workers, who numbered around 3,000 at the plant’s zenith, built custom industrial controls for huge factories, the military and most recently, for electric power plants. Now their work is being moved overseas, to places like India and China.
GE announced in 2018 that manufacturing operations in Salem would cease this year. Since then it has laid off more than 200 hourly workers. Journell is among the final handful to go.
The company continues to employ more than 300 professionals in southwestern Virginia, Adam Tucker, a spokesman for GE Power, said.
Worldwide, GE employs roughly 283,000 people. Although the company couldn’t tell me who tops the longevity pecking order, “it is accurate to say that Roger’s tenure places him as one of the company’s longest-tenured employees,” Tucker said.
“People like Roger make GE great,” Craig Strong, GE site manager in Salem, said. “We are grateful to Roger for his more than 62 years of dedicated service. Without question, he has made a significant positive impact to GE. But more important is the positive impact Roger has made on those of us who have had the honor of working alongside him during his career.”
Journell applied for a job at the plant in December 1956, the same year he graduated from Pearisburg High School and got married. By then, the farm-raised 18-year-old had tried his hand stocking shelves on the night shift at a Food Fair supermarket in Fairfax County.
He didn’t care for Northern Virginia much, Journell recalled in an interview at GE Thursday. Even back in those days, the traffic up there was unbelievable.
As the fourth-born of eight children, “I wanted to come home for Christmas ,” Journell told me. The bosses at Food Fair “didn’t want to let me off, but I went anyway.” One of his brothers then working at GE encouraged Journell to apply for a job at the Salem plant.
His first day at GE was Jan. 30, 1957. His job title was “miscellaneous machine operator” and it paid an hourly rate of $1.42.
“My check wasn’t but 50-some dollars a week — that was the gross,” Journell said. Since then, he’s held 15 other jobs at the Salem plant, including grinder, punch press operator, lathe operator, machinist and inspector.
“I’ve always been kind of mechanically inclined,” he told me. “I kind of learned that helping my dad on the farm with machines.”
Journell’s longest gig has been as an expediter in the company’s Incoming & Receiving department. That’s a worker who checks every nut, bolt and other article that comes in, and makes sure the inventory is correct on a daily basis, and that everything’s stored in the correct place in the stock room.
It’s a job that keeps Journell running around most of the Salem complex.
“He’s really, really thorough in his job,” said Ethel Webb-Hall, a GE co-worker who urged me to write about Journell. “He’s worried about every little part, and the count, and where it’s put. In the last year, we all knew we were closing — lots of people gave up caring. But not Roger. He’s really, really dedicated.”
“He’s one of the guys you go to if you have an issue,” said Vicky Hurley, president of Local 82161 of the IUE-CWA, the union that represents hourly workers at GE in Salem, including Journell. “He can get things straightened out.”
The company has undergone a bunch of name changes since Journell started there. In 1957, it was GE Drives & Controls, he told me. That later changed to GE Power & Water, and then GE Management; and now just GE Power. Journell allowed that there may be one or two names he’s forgotten.
At first, Journell and his wife lived with her relatives in Narrows, and he commuted more than 60 miles each way daily. Then he found a room to rent near the Salem Civic Center and drove back to Narrows on weekends.
Not much later, he and his wife rented an apartment on Front Street in Salem, then another one on Indiana Avenue, before they finally rented a house in Northwest Roanoke’s Cherry Hill neighborhood off Shenandoah Avenue.
Many of the plant’s employees lived in Cherry Hill because it was only minutes away from the factory. Journell and his wife, JoAnn, bought a plot there, and somewhere around 1962 built a three-bedroom rancher with a finished basement.
By that time, Journell’s job was to set up punch presses in the machine shop. His wage was just over $2 per hour. The house cost $13,200. He paid off the 30-year-mortage in the early 1990s, right on schedule.
In the early days of his employment at GE, the work was more difficult, because “we used World War II surplus lathes and other machinery,” Journell said. Now, most of those tools are computer-controlled. The most dangerous job, which Journell performed at different times, was operating punch presses that popped holes into sheet metal.
Although Journell said the plant has a good safety record, “more than a few [workers] lost hands, or had them crushed” in punch presses.
His fondest memories are “the people, the co-workers. We all worked together as a team. We were in the learning phase.”
Journell and his wife, who divorced in the late 1960s, had three children. One of their daughters lives in North Carolina; another’s in Tennessee. Their son Keith lives in Vinton. JoAnn, who worked for a time at GE, remarried but is deceased. They had three grandchildren, too.
Journell never remarried. With a smile, he said he’s had his share of girlfriends — but he’s single right now.
By most standards, the layoff package Journell and the other union workers are receiving is fairly generous. All of them are getting a year of full health benefits at no cost, plus two weeks pay for each year they worked.
For older workers such as Journell, there’s no cap to that severance — that means his severance is 124 weeks of pay, at an hourly rate Hurley, the union president, said is “above $30.”
Why work into your 80s? Why didn’t he retire long before now?
“I like working,” Journell told me. “I enjoy it. I’m not one to lay in bed until 10, 11 every day. If the plant wasn’t closing I wouldn’t be leaving right now.”
He said he’s had “lots of offers” on LinkedIn, the employment-oriented social media website he’s a member of. But he’s probably not going to take one of those.
Human Resources from GE corporate has recently been calling Journell’s home and cell phones and leaving messages, he told me.
“They wanted to know if they could help me find a job elsewhere,” Journell said, chuckling.
What’s he going to do?
“I’ve kind of let my house go,” he said. “I need to do some work on it. With me being a bachelor, and working like I’ve been working [overtime] the last several months, it needs a lot of work.”
Any plans to travel?
“I don’t plan stuff much in advance anymore,” Journell told me. “If I want to do something, I’ll just do it.”