The Silk Mill

An excerpt from “Hand on the Shoulder: Finding freedom in the confluence of love and career.

As far as I know, Dad never had a day of formal management training in his life. He simply used sound human relations and family values. And he never gave me specific career advice except “go to college and stay out of the textile industry.”

There is no graduate business school named the “G. Wesley Tate School of Management.” Nor is there a professorship named after him. But that is not what he would have wanted. Helping people was his legacy; not making a name for himself, not making money.

I’ve often wondered how to measure Dad’s influence on my working life. Unlike him, I’ve had years of business and management training over the years. Yet the early lessons from Dad, and another mentor, Goree Waugh, seem to be the most enduring.

When I was growing up, Dad worked at American Silk Mills in Orange. He was the supervisor of the department that turned raw threads into the yarn used by the hundreds of looms weaving special textiles for the fashion industry. I remember visiting the mill, hearing the screaming whir of hundreds of redrawing and quilling machines, and seeing people hurrying around to load the monsters with nylon, rayon, and other synthetics. Dad was proud to introduce visitors to the people he worked with and to explain how the complicated machines worked. “Our fibers make our textiles different,’’ he’d say. “The texture of the final product depends on us.”

When he began his job at the mill, he worked twelve hours a day, six days a week without overtime pay. The factory closed down one week a year so that people could have a short vacation. As far as I remember, that was the only benefit; No medical plan, no retirement — just work your hours and get your pay.

I remember the whine and roar of the machines in Dad’s department, and the strange odor of oil, ozone, and raw textiles they generated. That noise was multiplied in the other major department, weaving, where hundreds of looms sent shuttles flying back and forth at high speeds. No one in the company apparently had thought of providing ear protection for the operators.

Dad was a good manager. Many of our dinner conversations revolved around tales of the people in his department, many of whom had grown up in poverty and were thankful for having a paying job. A young woman passed out on the job one day. While helping her, Dad learned she hadn’t eaten in days. He took her to the store across the street and bought her some food to help her get on the track to better health.

Yes, Dad cared about his people but had little good to say about the mill owner, Milton Rubin, who showed up occasionally, using abusive language to berate mill management for not producing enough. Dinners at home after one of Rubin’s visits did not generate good memories. Rubin, from New Jersey, started the mill in Orange to take advantage of cheap labor, and he wanted to keep it that way.

After 25 years, Rubin gave Dad a Swiss watch — a meager reward for years of dedicated work. That watch was still in my mother’s memory box — a symbol of years of sweat and toil.

Soon after receiving the watch, Dad finally had his fill. He was sick of the working conditions and the way that the upper management treated people.

“I really have to leave the silk mill,” he told me as we walked the long hill toward our house, “Don’t know what I’ll do for a job. I want you to stay in college. You’re only in your second year.”

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “Scholarships and part-time jobs will see me through.”

Soon, Dad enrolled in accounting classes and began a new career. But his legacy as a manager lived on. I ran into people who said, “Wesley was the best manager I ever had. He was tough, but he cared about us.”

Hand on the Shoulder is available on Amazon and other major outlets.



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Grant Tate is an author, thought leader, confidential advisor, and idea explorer in Charlottesville, VA. His latest book is “Hand on the Shoulder.”