IP gang gets back together

Published 10:13 am Friday, May 20, 2011

Jimmy Pernell, left, and Chris Turner share a laugh during a reunion of International Paper sheet plant workers. GWEN ALBERS/TIDEWATER NEWS

Former sheet plant workers from International Paper gather for a group photo at the Bronco Rod and Gun Club on May 14. -- Bob Rudzik | Tidewater News

FRANKLIN—Nearly 125 former International Paper workers gathered at Bronco Rod and Gun Club on May 14 — on the first anniversary marking the layoff of the largest group of paper mill workers during last year’s closing of the plant.

The workers — some retired, some re-employed, some unemployed and some students — were from the mill’s sheet plant.

“The turnout is not as well as I hoped,” said former employee and reunion organizer Wesley Dorsey. “A lot of people had places to go and others, who have a job, had to work.”

The Tidewater News spoke to former sheet plant employees to find out what they’re doing now.

Donald Graham, 50, of Hunterdale—Laid off on June 30 after 27 years at the mill, Graham is studying information technology at Tidewater Community College with hopes of getting a job in computer system security. It will take 18 months to complete the certificate program.

Aaron Zurfluh, 48, of Courtland—After spending 26 years at the mill, where he was a shift assistant superintendent, Zurfluh expects he will have to move away to find work.

“It’s looking doubtful,” he said.

Zurfluh, who has a background in engineering, has applied for more than 50 jobs since leaving IP on Sept. 30.

Paul Phillips, 51, of Windsor—Phillips’ last day as production manager was April 30, 2007; that’s when he was laid off after 22 years at the mill. Today, he sells cars for Duke Chevrolet in Suffolk.

Eddie Atkins, 50, of Suffolk—Atkins was the machine No. 16 sheet operator. Since leaving IP on May 14 after 17 years, he has a job as a pipe fitter with Norfolk Naval Shipyard. He started there on Aug. 2 and likes it.

“I get to move and I love it,” Atkins said.

He no longer works different shifts and has weekends off.

Frankie Hollowell, 44, of Hobbsville, N.C.—He can’t find a job. After 16 years at the mill and leaving as a team crew operator on May 14, 2010, he has applied for more than 70 jobs. Hollowell recently interviewed with the City of Suffolk water treatment plant.

“It’s hard,” he said. “You don’t really know how hard it is until you get on the market.”

Hollowell’s unemployment ran out on May 14, but he expects an extension.

Ray Campbell, 49, of Eure, N.C.—After 25 years and nine months, Campbell’s last day on the job as a team crew operator was May 28. He’s now a deputy with the Gates County Sheriff’s Department.

The federal government paid the more than $800 fee for the 16-week program to qualify for the job. He commuted 98 miles a day, getting up at 3:30 a.m. and returning home at 6 p.m. with no guarantee of a job.

Five days after completing the program, he was hired. The Ahoskie Police Department also was interested in hiring Campbell.

“I like it,” he said about the job. “I like being able to stay closer to home.”

Jesse Bass, 33, of Hunterdale—After working for the mill for 12 years as a clamp truck driver, Bass left on Jan. 27, 2010. He is a propane truck driver for Parker Oil.

“The money isn’t as good, but it’s good to see my family so much more,” Bass said. “I didn’t really know how much I wasn’t home until I got a regular job.”

Scott Phillips, 38, of Franklin—A direct loader in the sheet plant, Phillips worked at the mill for 12 years. He’s now with the shipyard in Newport News, working with sheet metal. The 50-minute commute isn’t so bad and he appreciates having holidays and weekends off. His last day at IP was Jan. 28, 2010.

Ivan Bland, 73, of Courtland—Bland retired in 2000 after 35 years.

“I came to see my old buddies,” he said. “Most, I was really glad to see.”

David Toler, 66, of Franklin—Toler retired in 2009.

“I came to see everyone,” he said. “I think it was a good idea.”

Jimmy Byrum, 63, of Courtland—Byrum retired in 2009 after 39½ years at the mill. He enjoys gardening, yard work and “doing what I like and nothing if I don’t want to.”

George Fowler, 64, of Suffolk—After 40 years at the mill, Fowler retired on Jan. 30, 2009. He enjoys going to Hardee’s in the mornings and riding his motorcycle.