Barry McNamara  |   Published January 09, 2020

A Lesson in the American Dream

Students continue research project on how Maytag plant’s closing affected region economically, socially and culturally.
  • Students in Robin Johnson’s class contributed to the “Voices of Maytag” project.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A group of Monmouth College students received a lesson in the American Dream while working on a project about the region’s efforts to recover from an economic catastrophe.

Twenty Monmouth students added to the “Voices of Maytag” project, which was started last spring by students in a class taught by political science lecturer Robin Johnson. Johnson’s first group of students interviewed 42 former Maytag employees, asking them about their careers since the Galesburg, Ill., appliance manufacturing plant closed in 2004, costing the area 1,600 jobs.

Subtitled “A Look Back at a Factory Closure and Its Impact on People, Communities and the American Dream,” that 87-page report has now expanded by 50 pages with 23 new interviews by Johnson’s fall semester students, continuing the themes brought to light in the initial findings.

Among those: Some displaced workers used the closing as an opportunity to retire and focus on their families; others moved into a new field of work, supported by government-sponsored retraining programs, with some eventually landing better jobs than they had at Maytag; and many referred to the loss of a sense of family and community among the people who worked at Maytag.

“Overall,” wrote the students in report’s opening, “the ex-employees appeared to be a group of strong, resilient people that worked through the pain caused by the closure in pursuit of actualizing their own version of the American Dream. We learned the importance of persistence in facing adversity and empathy toward those facing sudden economic dislocations because we may face such scenarios in our lifetimes.”

Among the new entries that capture the “one door closing, another opening” theme is a profile of former Maytag employee Traci Bertelsen. Titled “The Worst/Best Thing That Could’ve Happened,” the entry was written by Emili Smucker ’20 of Troy, Ill.

Bertelsen began training for a welding job while still at Maytag and was hired shortly after the closing by John Deere.

“Traci is an amazing example of someone who was able to completely reinvent herself in response to disaster,” wrote Smucker. “Her successful reinvention, however, does not necessarily mean that this change and the events that forced it were easy for her or her family,” as the new position, which required Bertelsen to work a 12-hour shift 45 minutes farther from home, took her away from her family for up to 16 hours at a time.

Bertelsen also noted that it wasn’t just the “Maytag family” that suffered due to the closing. Several marriages ended and families were split.

“Traci was able to reinvent herself for the better, but still sees the damage that was done to the community and to those who could not find success after Maytag,” wrote Smucker.

Another former employee, Debbie Hartzell, who now works at Monmouth College, stressed adaptability and lifelong learning in her interview with Maggie Bruckner ’20 of Aurora, Ill.

“Ride the waves of life,” said Hartzell, who took advantage of the two-year retraining program to study business marketing, earning an associate’s degree. “Life throws things at you all the time … so you have to learn.”

“Debbie made me realize that she and her co-workers deserved at least a fighting chance,” said Bruckner. “She opened my eyes to the reality that so many people just want a chance at life without the interference of big companies and government. Debbie made me realize that many people from Galesburg and cities alike didn’t necessarily have a choice of the field or job they’re currently in; these results were due to the lack of one.”

On Maytag’s final day, wrote Bruckner, “tears filled (Hartzell’s) eyes when she saw police and reporters present, machinery off, and her co-workers crying while in shock.”

Fifteen years later, that emotional story touched Bruckner, as well.

“Debbie had some great quotes and left me with great life advice,” said Bruckner. “Her story was one that’ll stick with me forever.”

Read It …

“Voice of Maytag” Report   

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