- By Tom Stafford Staff Writer
Freshly graduated from high school that spring of 1962, Ron Bright was washing and waxing his 1955 Chevy street rod at his home just outside of Christiansburg that October when a friend dropped by with a question.
“Are you looking for work?”
“Not really,” came Bright’s reply, “but I’ll go to work.”
Told to be ready in the morning for a trip to Lawrenceville, he was.
In the 55 years of work mornings that have taken place since, R.B., as he is known, has made that same trip to Ever-Roll Specialties. And in the time he’s taken to turn from 19 years of age to 74, he’s fabricated metal tube, rod and wire into millions of dollars of product for the company and, even in his 70s, continues to fashion some unlikely and deep friendships along the way.
At a modest celebration of his longevity Monday in the company break area, R.B. was accompanied to the front of the room by a constant enough companion that fellow employees call Sirrell Alexander R.B.’s body guard.
Turning 30 when he joined the company three years ago, Alexander said he assumed he and R.B. were “on the opposite sides of the spectrum.”
Young, black and raised in Cincinnati, Alexander said on his second day of work, this older white man with a long, gray beard and a Harley hat on backward, “comes out of his way and comes to my (work) station,” just to say hello.”
“I didn’t think he’d be one of my top guys here,” Alexander said.
But in the years since, Alexander, while working on the new computerized welding machinery, has taught R.B. modern terms like clownin,’ and R.B. has taught him about old-school welding and the fact that friendships can cross every apparent social division.
“We never had one disagreement over the years,” Alexander said. “I wish I could find a woman like that.”
Andrea Merz, who has worked with R.B. for 19 years and is friends with him outside of work, said, “You can’t’ take him anywhere, because everybody flocks around him. He’s just got that persona about him (and) everybody loves his beard.”
Production Manager Kirk Ridenour said when he started with Ever-Roll 11 years ago, R.B. “was the only one that ran a lot of our bigger diameter rings,” the one-inch wire rods that are used at the bottom of buildings to make them earthquake resistant and are installed in huge earth moving machinery as springs.
He did all the welding for that and was the shop expert on the machine that drilled 60 holes in a 16-inch diameter burner ring — a machine that dated to the 1960s and had its own persnickety ways.
Since then, R.B. has backed off from some of the more physical work, demonstrating a kind of practical grace that has made it easier for him to adapt to aging and has made it easier for Ridenour to help him do so.
Ed Kohl, president of the company that employs upwards of 30 people and has $4 million in annual sales, said he’s not had much contact with R.B., “and that’s a compliment.”
“He’s that guy that came to work every day. For many years, he had perfect attendance,” Kohl said. “He’s not the kind of guy that created any problems. I’m not aware of him creating any safety or quality issues. He was doing his job and doing it well.”
R.B. had as good relations with his first boss who, unbeknownst to Bright, was working on a bender next to him on Bright’s first day of work and casually asked if he liked the job.
When R.B. said yes, he was hired.
“The next week, I got a paycheck and I liked that,” he said. “I kept getting paychecks and coming to work, and that’s all there is to it.”
A Harley rider who’s married and has two grown children, R.B. has traveled to all but three of the lower 48 states and wouldn’t mind traveling more if he could afford to buy an RV. He’d also like to have the ’55 Chevy he drove to California at the end of his first year of work, along with his ’48 Plymouth fastback, his Henry J quarter-mile car and his ’65 Dodge.
“I wish I had all them cars,” he said.
Up close, across the distance of a picnic table in the break area, something about R.B. is obvious that’s not obvious from a distance. His eyes focus on the person in front of him. Those eyes have an openness and friendly sincerity to them — a kind of patient genuineness that invites people in.
R.B. has already told Ridenour that when retirement day comes, there will be no fanfare, just a phone call saying that for the first time in more than 55 years, he’ll no longer be coming in.
“That’s what’s making it so hard for me to retire now,” he said. “After 55 years, it’s hard to quit.”
He expanded on the strength of habit by telling a story.
With that same honest, open look that draws people in, he said: “You know, if you got up in the morning and your wife slapped you every morning, if she didn’t slap you one morning, you wouldn’t know it’s morning.”
That’s one more thing: It’s hard to argue with R.B.