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“Working Class Roots”

Valley Residents Remember How They Got Their Start
by Dan Wright

HARRISONBURG — The first Monday of September, with its barbecues, travels and final summer flings, is a celebration of American workers.

As a tribute to the strength and perseverance of the nation’s work force, the Daily News-Record takes a Labor Day look at the initial moneymaking experiences of four people in the Shenandoah Valley.

What did they do and how much did they make?

Did they learn anything valuable?

Do they carry memories of that first job that they might rather forget?

Christine Michaels – Dungaree Folder

Since July 2002, Christine Michaels has been executive director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce.

But her first job was folding dungarees and overalls for a warehouse-style store in Gloversville, N.Y.

“I don’t remember the name of the store, and I don’t remember what I was paid,” said Michaels, 42. “But it was the minimum amount at the time, 30 years ago.”

What she does remember is a summer job in a dimly lit, dank workplace with no air conditioning.

“My most vivid memory is the bare bulbs with the little chain hanging down,” Michaels said. “And size 36 and size 38 look very similar in dim light.”

Michaels worked three hours a night, folding dungarees, then refolding them after customers left them in a tangle as they looked for the right size.

It was her first retail experience.

“My boss was very clear about my job,” Michaels said. “I was to help people find what they were looking for.”

Wayne Engel – Farmhand

A dollar a day and room and board. That was Wayne Engel’s compensation for his first job, as a farmhand in rural Ohio.

“I was 12 years old, and we worked sunup until sundown,” Engel said. “I worked all summer for several summers.”

Engel, 73, now is owner and host, with his son Wayne, of the Stonewall Jackson Inn Bed & Breakfast in Harrisonburg.

Engel made hay, milked cows, and fed hogs, chickens, sheep and cattle on the 200-acre farm. He called it a wonderful time.

“It was several miles from our family farm,” Engel said. “I had a horse and would ride home on Sundays to go to church and visit my family.”

Engel was in 4-H at the time and had beef and poultry projects. The work was a learning experience in agriculture and other areas, he said.

“The farmer was a bright man, well-read,” Engel said. “We talked a lot about economics, religion, politics and anything. He was a good mentor.”

Carolyn Smith – Dishwasher And Waitress

Carolyn Smith remembers long hours at her first job.

Now president of Solutions Insurance Group and Eldercare Associates, Smith’s first job was washing dishes at Angus Steakhouse, formerly on U.S. 11 north of Harrisonburg.

“I started washing dishes when I was 13 and moved to waitress a year later,” Smith, 49, said.

She was paid $1 an hour as a dishwasher, but moved up to $2 an hour plus tips as waitress.

“That wasn’t bad for a teenager in 1971,” she said. “The people at the restaurant were pretty good tippers.”

Smith worked nights and weekends during school and expanded her hours during the summer.

The food was good and she got to eat at the restaurant, but the hours were long.

One evening started out slowly, and everyone but Smith and the owner was sent home.

Then two buses pulled into the parking lot.

“We cooked and served and cleaned up for two busloads of people,” she said. “I got out of there at 2 in the morning.”

Scott Lilly – Plaster Remover

Scott Lilly’s first job, removing plaster from a house in downtown Richmond during the summer, taught him a valuable lesson — that he didn’t want to remove plaster for the rest of his life.

“I was 14 and the job paid $2.50 an hour,” said Lilly, 37. “I probably broke some child labor laws, but it did lead to another job the next summer which paid a little better.”

Lilly, manager of Farm Credit in Harrisonburg, calls it a good experience.

He rode to and from work with the owner of the business, Louis Heindel, the father of his best friend.

In Heindel, he had a captive audience.

“For a 14-year-old, I had an interest in business and he took the time to talk to me,” Lilly said. “Some of what he taught me, I still use today.”

In the long run, he added, that was worth more than the paycheck.