Later, people would ask him if he loved working for his company. The question was not surprising; it was the only place he worked his entire career. He had come as a young man right out of college, full of hope and ambition and self-assured that he knew everything worth knowing. Somehow, he had lasted for the next four decades. The people he’d been hired with were long gone; he wasn’t sure if that spoke well of them or him.
It wasn’t a question of whether he had loved the company. He really couldn’t answer it. Instead, he had engaged with its soul, and it did have a soul, sometimes full of light and often full of unexpected shadows.
This engagement with the company’s soul brought him, eventually, to the corporate archives. The rooms housing the archives smelled like archives – old paper, old books, old company newsreels and magazines. What he learned there was both a history of the company and the history of industry, for the company’s rise, fall, and change mirrored 20th century industrial history.
What he liked more than the documents were the artifacts, including the silver teething ring of the founder’s son and heir, the one who had propelled the company to a zenith of success. And the founder’s roll top desk and chair, which he had personally ensured were restored after decades of neglect in a back room. That room was filled with the paintings, statues, and other decorations the founder has adorned his office with. Looking at them never diminished the sense that the founder had atrocious taste in art.
The archives included photography files. More than once he had looked through the scenes of segregated company picnics where white and black employees ate separately and posed together but separately for the photographer. And advertisements, like for detergents long off the market and artificial sweeteners that had flourished, died, and been resurrected when the regulators discovered their science had been wrong.
Dust, old and new, was plentiful. Once a month and after business hours, he would oversee the housekeeping team contracted to clean the archive rooms.
He researched, he catalogued, he wrote articles for corporate history magazines, he sent 16mm films for digital reproduction, he preserved newspaper articles, he entertained descendants of old company executives and visitors interested in the company’s history, he responded to inquiries from researchers, professors, reporters, and even the occasional corporate executive. One CEO had even made a regular practice of spending time in the archives, reading old annual reports, minutes of Board meetings, and speeches. The CEO’s research had led to an executive decision almost fatal for the company, for he had learned too much of the wrong lessons.
Through all his work over four decades, he saw the change coming. The paternal gradually gave way to the expedient. The good of the long term was often sacrificed for the gain in the short term. Executives had less interest in stewarding than in receiving.
And so he was not surprised that day when the email arrived from HR, the one that the archives were being “consolidated with other operations” and that he could retire with a generous severance package or look for a position in another part of the company. And the expected last day of work, should he accept the severance package which included the requirement of not to sue the company.
On that day, he made sure the archives were left in perfect order, because it was still his job, on that last day. He locked his desk and the office door, and left his keys with the security guard. As he walked to the parking lot, he pretended not to see the men lined up with dollies and boxes, and the special trash dumpsters, waiting.
Top photograph by David Wagner, and middle photograph by Linnaea Mallette, both via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.
(I was substitute teaching, and the lesson plan for the classes that day included a 30-minute exercise – to write “a love story that ends badly.” I decided to do the exercise myself.)