What follows is the text of my speech from the glorious May 9th grand opening of the Historic Blue Bell Lofts – there were more than a few asides not captured here … for those, go to video!
“Four Score and — Five Years Ago”…seems like only yesterday…and we are all still wearing our durable Wrangler jeans as we gather here today INSIDE A HANDSOME BUILDING CONSTRUCTED IN 1932! “Little” Roy Sexton –who provided the perfect tribute to or epitaph for my dad, his grandpa, in October 1983 — co-created this short speech with me for this special day dedicated toward the official opening of BLUE BELL LOFTS!
He declared, “Daddly (his adverbial nickname for Roy Duncan, long time plant manager) did NOT seem like the kind of person who would ever die…” He was correct…because ” Mr. Blue Bell” (JoEllen Adams McConnell’s nickname for my dad) seems present today…we know he is smiling broadly, relishing with gusto this moment. As a young engineer from Greensboro, North Carolina, R.E.D. arrived around 1938 with his trusty slide-rule and stop-watch and stayed on as manager from 1942 until 1974 as an integral, long-time member of the Blue Bell family – both my father and this very building itself, as well as former employees and business associates and customers — and now new inhabitants — yes, indeed, FAMILY!
Roy Sexton emailed me the following talking points…he is always looking after my best interests…he is smart enough to know my own remarks might proceed for hours and hours…so please just sit still for only about 10 minutes instead…(I do take after my father…my husband has always said that he wished he could hide the household job (“honeydew”) jar and find me plants to manage BTW. And I don’t mean African Violets or geraniums!
“FORWARD: USE AS YOU SEE FIT – Potential thoughts for your May 9th remarks:” by Roy and Susie Sexton!
Today is a special day for many reasons. The opening of this beautiful residential facility in our Blue Bell building signifies the ongoing growth of Columbia City, a reminder of our history as a manufacturing hub, and how powerful it is when different members of the community collaborate to make life as we know it better for everyone. For me, though, this day has special significance as my father Roy Duncan ran the Blue Bell plant for decades, employing hundreds of our Columbia City friends stitching up those beloved Wrangler jeans. He would be so pleased to see all of you cute kids in your denim today!
My father, like anyone’s father, loved his own family and appreciated the work that allowed him to provide for us. But anyone who knew my father well also fully realized that he could be very passionate and very mischievous, and there were days at work where his playful streak was rewarded and darker days where the deep-feeling side might be tested. Regardless, he was always undeniably proud of the persons who stepped through these doors and of the garments they created and shipped to all corners of the globe.
Here’s the real kicker, though. He believed landmarks must be preserved. He gleefully remodeled and rehabilitated homes. In fact, I still question some of the choices he made in the early 60s to turn our 1935 Line Street bungalow into something that occasionally resembled a very well-lit postmodern UFO.
Even after he retired, he would fret and worry about how the factory’s grounds were maintained here at the Blue Bell plant, commiserating with Mr. Ermael Day regarding the landscaping and then snapping photos that he sent back to Wrangler HQ., so he would be pleased as punch to see how this beloved lengthy, streamlined building has been restored with absolute care and genuine compassion, revelatory of an obvious reverence for the past, and with such appreciation for the spirit and the joy of the people who worked here.
I’ve been writing about Blue Bell since moving back here in 1986, first with a piece for JoEllen in the Historical Society Bulletin and later in my columns. As a kid, this facility was a magical place where: ice cream and chewing gum and Baby Ruth candy bars could be purchased in the canteen; lunches planned by Lucille Scott enticed at noon and got served in the divine cafeteria; dungarees were snapped up at cost in the company store; new parking lots materialized; the Vandalia Railroad tracks disappeared and in their place a tree-lined park and benches emerged; and huge bolts of fabrics would whisk from one end of the plant to the other. I’ve continually tried to manifest and illustrate the heart and soul of this place and constant productive, bustling activities on each of its floors and the various steps along the assembly line, covering anecdotes from the colorful personalities that walked its halls while I have simultaneously stressed the impact this dependable factory and the important business conducted within its walls had upon countless numbers of us who “once upon a time” lived…as well as presently live…in this community.
My father spent the bulk of his life working here. I have enjoyed a great deal of my life recapturing what made the Blue Bell era so special for me (from birth to age 70!)–I have pored through my two trunks (one of which was a gift from Marilee Boyd with the words “GLOBE-SUPERIOR” stenciled on the lid) of memorabilia nearly every time I passed by them lately, during this thrilling time of repurposing, happy to add my two cents worth …(and denim is and has always been my favorite fabric, and that pungent fragrance permeates the air of every room of our home). A huge sign above this establishment’s entrance once proclaimed, “World’s Largest Producer of Work and Play Clothes”. A lesser known slogan, but one quite familiar among Blue Bell personnel, religiously referred to as “family“, was “The Big Company that pays attention to little things”. And now I am beyond thrilled to see this generation and future generations literally spending their daily lives in the former Blue Bell building’s sheltering embrace. Thank you to Commonwealth and Gina Gowen and our community leadership for not only preserving but also creatively reinventing and reinvigorating Blue Bell for today and tomorrow. And, thus, we return to the title for this speech —“FORWARD: USE AS YOU SEE FIT” – and as we can attest to this May 9th afternoon — Mission Accomplished!