SUMTER — In some cases, work is more than just punching in the clock.
For several Campbell’s Soup retired employees who recently gathered at Pilgrim’s Pride, their years together have produced lasting friendships and fellowship. For the past 20 years since the soup plant became Gold Kist, and later, Pilgrim’s Pride, the Campbell’s Soup friends lunch group has met once a month on a Saturday morning. In the past, the group has toured company facilities in Aiken, North Carolina and at Shaw Air Force Base, among other destinations.
Kathryn Goodwin worked at Campbell’s Soup for 19 years, performing various duties within the soup plant primarily known for its TV dinners. She organized the group in February 1992, exactly a year after the plant changed hands. At the time, there were about 800 retirees from the soup plant, she said, and she wanted to keep in touch, pass along information about insurance and benefits, visit each other and note birthdays, deaths, weddings and the births of children and grandchildren.
According to Goodwin, the group has met monthly 243 consecutive times. She added that most of the people who toured Pilgrim’s Pride hadn’t been on the grounds of the facility in 21 years. Goodwin said that, a few years ago, she organized a tour of the plant for the lunch group when it was Gold Kist. She didn’t see much difference from when it was Campbell’s Soup. However, she admitted the plant looks different since it became Pilgrim’s Pride.
She said she appreciated how the Pilgrim’s Pride management worked with her in putting the tour together.
“They’ve been nice, corresponding and arranging everything with me for about a month,” Goodwin said. “They’ve helped in giving us reserved parking spaces, and they helped me in getting in touch with the former employees to come do the tour.”
Goodwin called Shirley Davis one of the most faithful members of the lunch group because she usually attends most of the monthly meetings. Davis, who is a widower and mother of two sons, worked at Campbell’s Soup for 14 years. She worked on the eviscerating line. Davis said her duties included killing live chickens, inspecting them and passing them on to the next department. During the tour, she noticed there weren’t as many people working on the eviscerating line because machines now do most of the work.
Davis was forced to quit and wound up on disability after suffering carpal tunnel syndrome, which caused her to have numbness, tingling, weakness and muscle damage in both hands. The pain eventually led her to undergo surgery.
Nonetheless, Davis had nothing but kind words to say about her time with the soup plant.
“I enjoyed the people that I worked with, and the supervisors I worked for,” Davis said. “I think what was great about management was during department meetings, the supervisors would tell us about the good work we were doing. I also would add that they gave us good benefits.”
Louise Choice said during her 25 years working at Campbell’s Soup, it was the “best place a person could work for.”
Rusty Atkinson, a supervisor at Pilgrim’s Pride, worked 16 years for the soup plant before it changed over to Gold Kist. Atkinson was one of the tour guides. “Having the people here brought back a lot of good memories for the people that were here,” Atkinson said. “A lot of them worked side by side with me in there, and they helped build the foundation of the soup plant.”
Although not retired, Bonnie Lee Jones played a big part in the creation of the Sumter Campbell’s Soup. Jones was hired by a construction company to help build Campbell’s Soup, which was completed in June 1966. Jones started working at the soup plant the day after it was built. He has been at the same facility since starting at 17 years old and has a total of 47 years working for Campbell’s Soup, Gold Kist and now Pilgrim’s Pride.
Jones has witnessed the changeover from TV dinners primarily produced by Campbell’s Soup to processing and distributing chicken at Pilgrim’s Pride. He is now the shipping and freezer supervisor during the night shift at Pilgrim’s.
“I was glad that the company opened the doors to allow the former employees come in and tour the plant,” Jones said. “My experience with Campbell’s Soup along with the rest of the companies that took over have been nothing but good for me. All the former employees kept asking me when I’m going to retire. I told them that I’m going to keep going on and hopefully they keep me around.”