Tamara Fitzpatrick feels like she’s losing a friend. More than a friend, really. A family member.
The former Whirlpool employee grew up with the Fort Smith plant a central part of her life. Her father, Tom Cravens, worked there 25 years, and took her to the company picnics each year.
“Everyone, who’s been around Fort Smith for a while, remembers those picnics. It was like the Fair, with rides and games,” Fitzpatrick said. “From when I was a kid, I could remember thinking, ‘Man, you’re going to get ice cream and sno-cones and Jerry Neel’s Barbecue will be there catering.’ It was such a huge event.”
Fitzpatrick also remembers the Partners-in-Progress awards that then-Fort Smith Mayor Ray Baker would bestow upon the company.
“They had a big tent set up, and Mayor Baker would come out with the award and give the hurrah that Fort Smith was a great place to live. Those are the fun things that I remember.”
Baker died in March 2011 after 20 years as Mayor and 50 years in the Fort Smith Public Schools system. For most of that time (45 years), Whirlpool was there with him, enriching the lives of Fort Smith residents like Fitzpatrick.
On June 29, Whirlpool will close its Fort Smith plant, and as with Baker, only memories will remain — for the 917, who will drive away from the plant one last time, and for ex-employees like Fitzpatrick, who were able to leave the company before the company left them.
Fitzpatrick began her Whirlpool career on the manufacturing line in 1994. “Little-by-little,” she worked her way to the labor management coordinator position. In that capacity, she “served as a liaison between management and union.”
In all, she would give the company 14 years of her life. Along with the picnics, she looks back on memories of her co-workers — their commitment to the job, and to the community as a whole.
“The hourly co-chairs did a lot of fundraising for the Relay for Life. They worked so hard to raise money. I remember how the Sharon Hankins group sold barbecue plate lunches throughout the plant. They had someone bring them in and distribute, and all their earnings went towards that cause. They raised $16,000 in eight weeks. Then there was Jana Gentry’s group with the sno-cones. That place is hot, hot, hot, during the summertime, and let me tell you something: Jana was on it with those sno-cones.”
Fitzpatrick continued: “Mona Mendoza (former communications supervisor) and I coordinated a barbecue for everyone on all three shifts. We were there for 24 hours, making sure everyone got fed and went through the line. I remember thinking, ‘I hope we don’t do this next year.’”
Listening to Fitzpatrick reminisce, you get the feeling she would be up for one more. But despite all that, in 2006, she began to suspect something was amiss.
“During that time, around 4,500 employees worked there. We had some layoffs in 2006 and 2007, and so when they dropped 700 employees in September 2008, I was doing the calculations.”
Those “calculations” revealed that “only 130 people were below me on the seniority list. I knew if there was another layoff, it would get me,” she said.
After a “long discussion” with her husband Kirk, Fitzpatrick decided to “take a buyout” in November 2008.
The exact day was Nov. 14.
She remembers Kirk asking “if I wanted him to drive me to work, and I said, ‘No, I got this.’”
Her voice is strong now, but there seems a slight quiver, as if the tears will return if she dwells too long on the moment.
“I did my thing that day, scheduled some events, and I was fine, but as I was getting ready to clock out the last time, I looked back, and I could see the plant operating, all the presses going, and I realized it was the last time I’d clock out as a Whirlpool employee. By the time I was out to the parking lot, I was in tears.”
LIFE AFTER WHIRLPOOL
Fitzpatrick said she can sympathize with what the remaining Whirlpool employees will experience on Friday, calling her departure a “very emotional experience,” but she wants to emphasize there is “life after Whirlpool.”
Hers began in January 2009 when she enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) and began working toward her business administration degree. Fitzpatrick had planned on “taking a break” from school upon graduation in 1992. She enrolled in some classes at then WestArk Community College, but never attained her associates degree.
“My parents warned me then. They said, ‘Tamara, you take time off, you’ll never go back.’” She laughs. “They were almost right.”
Near the end of 2008, Fitzpatrick seized the opportunity to continue her education, but admits it wasn't easy.
“It was a family affair between me, my husband, and my daughter Brittney, and we had to give up some things.”
Attending daughter Brittney’s school activities became more difficult, Fitzpatrick notes, “but she understood that Mom had to go to school, and we all kind of did it together.”
Fitzpatrick continued: “We always liked to go to Catfish Cove and eat on Tuesday nights, but we never could go. We’d always say, ‘Next Tuesday we’re going.’ But I’d have to write a paper or do this or that, and we never could. I thought, ‘That’s pretty sad, in three and a half years, we never could go and eat at a restaurant because there was some obstacle in the way. We couldn’t take family vacations during the summer because I was in summer school.”
Still, almost 20 years after the fact, in May 2012, Fitzpatrick earned her bachelor’s degree from UAFS.
Today, Fitzpatrick works as an assistant to economic development for the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“I never dreamed I’d be here in a million years, working on economic development, something that is very near and dear to my heart. I want to see this community come out on top, and I believe it can.”
The key, Fitzpatrick says, is in “finding your passion” and then “going for it,” adding that she believes “a lot of those folks have a lot of skills they’re coming out of there with that they just don’t realize they have.”
Fitzpatrick doesn’t believe losing Whirlpool is the end for her former co-workers or for the Fort Smith region.
“Whirlpool was like a small community in its own. Like a family. Hourly, salary — didn’t matter. They were a family out there. But leaving there opened up a whole new set of doors for me, and I believe it will for them, too.”