WESTERNPORT - Close to 1,500 people consisting of Luke Mill workers, retirees, and family members attended the appreciation day held on Saturday to remember the paper company that was the lifeline of this area for over 130 years and which has recently ceased production.

By Jean Braithwaite

Tribune Correspondent

WESTERNPORT - Close to 1,500 people consisting of Luke Mill  workers, retirees, and family members attended the appreciation day held on Saturday to remember the paper company that was the lifeline of this area for over 130 years and which has recently ceased production.

The event was held in the parking lot area of Moran’s Lounge, along state Route 135, between Westernport and McCoole.

Greg Harvey, president of the United Steel Workers Union Local 676, who has been employed by the paper company for 37 years and union president for 10 years, said the event was held to support the employees and their families.

He said throughout the years, the paper mill has had an outstanding workforce, and those attending received shirts imprinted with the words “World Class Workforce.”

Harvey is holding on to the hope that another company will come to Luke and purchase the mill, with that process happening before winter.

To honor those attending the appreciation day, everything was free and besides the shirts, there were cold drinks, snow cones, chicken dinners, children’s entertainment, and more.

Paul Hoopengardner, retired in 2007, after putting in 37 years working in the lower mill, said that he “had good years at the mill.”

Now, with his wife ready to retire, and if Verso was still operational, Hoopengardner would have gone to the mill’s insurance office to seek advice on that retirement.

He said, “It is not as easy to get information now as when the mill was open.”

Bill Bateson is still working at Verso as a trucker-loader until July 31, and after that date he will be doing “some side work in construction.”

He said about the closing of the paper mill, “What goes on, goes on.”

Tim Bradley has had employment with Verso for nearly three years, and he recalled what happened when the announcement of the mill closure was made public.

He said, “I was coming off of a double shift and ready to go back on a double shift at the No. 8 and 9 machine room.”

Adding that he received the closing information through Facebook, he said he thought, “This is a joke.”

Bradley said that he feels, “There is no impact yet on this area with the closing of Verso, but it will come.”

Bradley’s fiancé, Veronica Bean, also saw a post on Facebook, and said,  “I cried.”

She said that she is trying to be like Bradley in that, “He is keeping his chin up, and going from day-to-day.”

Working at the paper mill for 40 years, with most of that time at No 5 machine beater room, Tom Brinegar said, “The mill was always very good to me.”

He said that he has a sense of sadness about the closing, and he continues to call the mill by the former name of Westvaco, while, “The news hit me hard.”.

His daughter, Melinda Youngblood, was seated under one of the many large tents being provided for shelter from the sun for those attending the event Sunday, and she previously worked at the Club House until it closed.

She moved on to ABL, and she said, “I heard rumors of the closing of the mill,” and, “This will affect the whole area. I hope some business goes in there.”

Tiffaney Rice of Short Gap was a process engineer at machine No 9, and she has already obtained other employment, and will start her new job on July 8.

“I am sad about the closing of Verso, but nervous about the future of the area,” she said.

Alyssa Grubbs was near the play area where several inflatables and other recreational opportunities were available for the children in attendance and she was keeping an eye on Ashlyn Grubbs and Moxxi Grubbs.

Alyssa said that her father, Steve Grubbs, was still working when the mill closure was announced, and she said, “He may be retiring soon.”

Michael Hartman and his wife Debbie arrived early to the event, and he said that his employment with the paper company has lasted 30 years.

He said that when the closure news was announced, “I first gave a sigh of relief,” because his work schedule almost included 16 hours each day; “I got a lot of overtime.”

Hartman said, along with his wife, “We hope we will be alright,” mentioning that their house is paid off, and, “We live within our means.”

Hartman’s family is military minded as he proudly showed a photo of himself, along with his three sons in their military uniforms.

All three are serving in the Army National Guard, and at least one of the three was a present employee of Verso and on active duty in Kuwait when he saw the closure news on Facebook.

Debbie Hartman said, “We will make the adjustment,” as she told about her just planning to slow down with her employment to babysit a grandson.

Michael Hartman said that he started actively seeking employment and has made inquiries with Hunter Douglas and will soon have an interview with Berkeley Springs Instruments.

One person, who didn’t want to be named, said that he retired from MeadWestvaco after working at the paper mill for nearly 40 years and he had a humorous story to tell.

He said, “I ate a lot of bologna sandwiches, packed in my lunch bucket”, as he continued saying that most often there were two slices and sometimes three slices of meat on the sandwiches.

However, he said that when he opened his lunch bucket up during his workday, and, “There was only one slice of bologna on the bread, I knew my wife was mad at me.”

The crowd of retired mill workers that were gathered around to hear that story all agreed that the paper mill was good to them and their families, and some things mentioned included  that they were able to purchase a new vehicle every few years, remodel their homes, put their children through college, and always had food on the table.